Italy. But whichever country we chose for May would be beautiful.

I guess whichever country we decided to spend the month of May in was bound to be beautiful.

We spent Halloween in Zaragoza, 41 degrees north latitude, and the aspens and poplars were all bright yellow.  By January in Merzouga, in the Sahara desert of southern Morocco, the last yellow leaves were dropping in the sunshine, 31 degrees north latitude, and it was COLD at night.

So here we are in Italy, where whole hillsides are bursting with yellow wildflowers and hedges smell like flower shops.  We are soaking in the beauty and sunshine, and we really do wish you were here.  I’d love to be making you all coffee and urging you to have another croissant from the campground bakery.  Honestly, it’s no trouble: we’ll just bike over there.

Tuscan Wildflowers

We spent last week based at a campground in the middle of Tuscany, exploring towns and savoring some of the greatest art we have ever seen.  For example, in Florence, from the church of Santa Maria Novella, a series of frescoes on the life of Mary, including her engagement to Joseph and her earlier move from her family home to the Jerusalem Temple, which the Qur’an describes but the Canonical Gospels do not:

bottom: Mary taken to Temple, Mary engaged, more. Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence

And this immense painted crucifix by Giotto that hangs over the nave:

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Or this one, moved from the famous Duomo church to the Museum across the street.  It’s part of a series of carved hexagons, and it shows Eve being taken out of the side of Adam, the mythic story from Genesis about the one time a woman was born from a man, who slept through it all.  Of course.

Eve taken from Adam's Rib, Duomo Museum, Florence

Beauty is not mostly made by humans, even if we’re the ones who notice it.   The sun’s path across the sky can be traced and marveled at.  This brass line on the floor of the nave notes the constellations of the zodiac which rule each month of our year.  This medallion celebrates the winter solstice, when the sun casts its longest reach of the year through the door of the Basilica.

Summer Solstice - sun-angle finder, Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence

We also loved the decoration inside the Great Synagogue of Florence, the Tempio Maggiore.  It reminds you of the Muslim world, and it should, since after Jews were expelled from Catholic Spain, they were welcomed in Muslim places like Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey, and the architecture of those lands inspired the men who built this great sanctuary in the 1880’s.  The brass plate marks the pew for the Consiglio, the advisory board of the synagogue.

Place of Honor for Councilman, Interior, Florence Grand Synagogue

We’ve also enjoyed the Italians’ flexible relationship with rules and regulations, and their love for everything amore.   Lovers write their initials on these padlocks, attach them to the wrought iron of this bridge in Florence, and then throw the key in the river.  They are not allowed to do this, says the attractive bronze sign.  I am sure a municipal employee polishes it a couple of times a year.

Love Breaks The rules

After a week of love, art, and walking our bikes when the uphills got too long, we left Tuscany.

Now, we’re on the island of Elba, best known for Napoleon being exiled here in 1814 after his disastrous campaign in Russia.  He attacked Russia because he feared they were conspiring with the English to attack his Empire.  So pretty much all the European powers got together and sent him here, where he immediately had marshes drained, roads built, water supplies set up, and hospitals constructed.  After 300 days, he got bored with Elba, sneaked away, landed in France a few days later by boat, and marched to Paris to take up his throne again.  He was defeated about a hundred days later at Waterloo, in Belgium, and exiled this time to the other side of the planet, a South Atlantic island named St. Helena.

Here’s a view of Elba, where our ferry dropped us off at the dock in Portoferraia.

Elba Shoreline and Mobty Lifeboat

We easily found our campground on the south side of the island, and settled in for a week of biking, swimming in the sea, hiking, and reading.

We have novels and nonfiction, but the news from home is gripping.  God help us.  Despite all the claims of news being faked (and surely some of the news we read now, and read before the election WAS fake), it looks like we are finally getting stories that so many wanted kept “in the family.”

So I’ll close with one of my favorite paintings by Botticelli in the Uffizi Gallery.  It shows the mythic King Midas, advised by Suspicion and Ignorance, sitting on his throne.  He’s getting ready to judge the victim of slander, who’s being dragged by the hair by Defamation, accompanied by Fraud, Spite, and Deception.  On the left, Repentance looks at the naked Truth, who raises her eyes to heaven.

An innocent man being libelled and judged by poorly-advised King Midas

 

 

Recovering and Uncovering

First of all, thanks to all our well-wishers since our break-in a week ago.  We keep discovering little things that we want to use that are gone, and get angry again.  This morning (Monday), the VW dealer is installing the four parts of the door handle which the thieves wrecked in order to get into the van.

But we are back to our happy routine of van life, and it is so great to be cooking for ourselves again.

Here’s one last theft-related photo: we googled “Apple Computer Dealers” and found one called the R-Store a few miles away.  We took the subway and started following the blue dotted line on Lynnell’s phone.  But the store was not there!  About ten seconds before she took this picture, I confidently pronounced that the store must have moved, because there was no such place as #1 Whatever Street.  The facial expression is a re-enactment, but I promise I only moved maybe five feet for the picture.

John can't find the R-store on his phone!

A few days later, after careful application of sunscreen, and parking the van in a VERY SAFE SPOT, we spent four hours in the remarkably well-preserved Roman city of Pompeii.  It’s laid out on a grid, and 20,000 people lived there, although on August 24, the day Mount Vesuvius blew its top in CE 79, a lot of folks had evacuated.   After digging two meters of soil away, the wooden roofs were gone, but the walls, doors, windows, and floors were intact.

You could easily imagine someone ducking out this back door to go buy something for dinner.

Vesuvius and gate-shadow, Pompeii

And like a lot of city dwellers today, Pompeiians apparently bought, rather than cooked, most of their meals.  Here’s what Tour Guide author Rick Steves calls “a fast food place” that opens right onto the street:

food-to-go restaurant counter, , Pompeii

My sister, who in addition to being much younger than I am, arrived here long, long ago, sent me this picture after the blog post was published:

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Pompeii was part of a network of multicultural cities and towns linked by the Globalization of the day, the Pax Romana.  Rome conquered, taxed, regulated, and pretty much made sure that the nations they ruled stayed peaceful for trade and travel.  Here was the deal Rome made: “Go ahead and have your own religions and foods.  Speak your languages.  But don’t try to separate yourself from the Empire.  You can sell your goods all over the world, and be able to buy things from far away.  We’re going to build a lot of roads (you’re welcome); aqueducts and canals (you’re welcome); and Temples (make sure you worship Caesar as well as whoever else you’ve got).  No walls on your borders unless we build them.  Be ready to send some young men to the other side of the world to fight barbarians.  That’s the deal.”

Young men could also make a name for themselves–and a lot of money if they were successful–in pro sports.  Gladiators lived in the cells around this huge training ground in Pompeii, and fought one another in the arena behind.  The modern Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj made these great cast bronze pieces to commemorate them.

Gladiator sculptures in ruins, Pompeii

And then, after the volcano spread the horrible cloud of death and concealment, Pompeii was gone.  The people passed into anonymity, and their carefully-built city was gone. Life is short, wrote the French poet H.-F. Amiel, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us along the way.  Be quick to love.  Make haste to be kind.  And the God of compassion will go with you.

Back in Rome, we ran into some brass cobblestones every once in awhile.  We would squat and read about the mostly Jewish people who had once lived in the houses we passed.  It was awfully sobering.  All the people named on these stones were arrested, mostly on March 21, 1944.  So close to the end of the war!  By May, all had been killed, mostly in Auschwitz, far to the north and east, though a few of them did not even get that far.  The DiConsiglio family lived here.  Some were hiding at their grandfather’s hardware store across the street. The German artist Günter Demnig has installed these and other Stumbling Stones, as he calls them, in Rome and elsewhere in Europe.

Memorial cobblestones of Roman jews

Jews first came here in 161 BCE, and their religion was admired throughout the Empire.  Unlike the violent, “degraded, and shameful practices” of the Romans (Tacitus, Annals), Jews had high ethical standards and a God whose name was too holy even to pronounce.  Plenty of “pagan” Romans converted to Judaism during that time.  The Jewish community flourished here in the Middle Ages, and scholars helped translate Arabic and Greek works into Latin.  There was a famous Talmud school.   When the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, many came here, with no money, and were welcomed.  In other parts of Italy, they were turned away.  By 1555, however, the Pope ordered Jews into a ghetto, and forced them to wear yellow badges.  For the next three hundred years, there were more tolerant popes and less tolerant ones, and life for Jews in Rome could be comfortable and then suddenly precarious.  Besides being unwilling to convert to the state religion, Jews were also targets of suspicion because they were cosmopolitan, educated, and rootless.  Their rootlessness, of course, was the result of their having often had to relocate from whatever place they’d try to put down roots in.

80% of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust, mostly by hiding or emigrating, and some by having the good luck to be put in Italian internment camps, which often did not allow inmates to be shipped to the death camps.

The Jewish community in Rome today numbers about 25,000, according to a recent Ha’aretz article. Wikipedia says 45,000.  There are about fourteen synagogues in the city, though some are barely functional.

Not far from the DiConsiglio’s home are the ruins of the Colosseum where the Romans used to watch prisoners thrown to the lions, gladiators fighting to the death, and even mock naval battles.  They could put six feet of water in the place in short order.  It was sobering to read the placards describing how some combatants were ignited to add drama to the spectacle, and how Jewish and other slaves were put to work constructing the Colosseum.  Apparently a lot of the funds used to quarry and transport stone came from selling valuable objects stolen in the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

big man with tattoos, Colosseum

The bronze Stumbling Stones help us remember.  Maybe my favorite work of Roman art, though, was this statue (below) of a wayfaring stranger.  We saw it at a distance, and couldn’t help going up to see if there was a face under the hood.  Sure enough, there was, as well as wounds in feet and hands.  The inscription on the wall plaque comes from Jesus’ famous story about how people would be judged when, one day, they meet their Maker.   I was a stranger, and you took me in.

 

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

The Final Exam in Life, according to Jesus is: when you cared for ones who the world regards as unimportant, you were caring for me.  If they were sick, imprisoned, homeless, or lacking food or clothing, the way you treated them will reveal your spiritual quality.   How you treat your friends and family is important, sure, but the real test is something else.  Your faith in God is revealed in how you act toward people who aren’t going to repay you or make you famous or rich.

St. Francis put it another way: Preach the Gospel.  If necessary, use words.

The Five Stages Of Recovering From Having All Your Stuff Stolen

Five days ago, unknown jerks broke the door handle off our van and got in, grabbed all the luggage they could find, and drove off.  We had been parked in the lot of a big mall near the airport, getting Italian SIM cards for our phones.  It took longer than usual for the SIM cards to activate, and we went back to the van to get a couple things, talking about the weird message Lynnell had gotten about two purchases in Rome on her credit card.  We thought the mall wifi was hacked, but when we got to the car, we found out WE had been hacked.  Jacked.  Fracked.   Here’s where we had been parked.  Yeah, you’re right: the tree on the left covered the bad guys.  They just grabbed everything that was packed like luggage, which was pretty much all our stuff, minus the cooking gear and travel books.

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I won’t bore you with the list of stuff we will never see again, but the police were very calm.  No, we can’t give you a form right now, but don’t worry, they told us, you can file your report any time in the next 90 days.  Don’t feel too bad, that mall doesn’t have very good security.  Go have a nice dinner with your family.  It was closing time, maybe 6:30 pm, and the officers were all going home.  Thanks, guys.

We were stunned and numb, walking aimlessly back to the mall and trying to decide what to do after visiting the precinct.  We were out by the airport, planning on putting the van in long-term parking and meeting our son Carter and daughter-in-law Jennifer who were joining us within the hour for a long weekend, getting away to Rome from rainy, cold London.  For a while, we thought it would be better to stay in a hotel near the airport, so we could have the van to drive to big box stores and buy new stuff.  We needed everything.

But we wisely decided to leave the van in a much more secure lot, near the po-po, and go meet Jen & Carter’s flight.

The next 24 hours we spent in their loving and efficient care, making lists, telling the story over and over, going through Kübler-Ross’ stages of loss:

  1. denial (doesn’t last long, looking at a very empty van with a broken door handle)
  2. anger (how dare they!)
  3. bargaining (OK, God, thanks for the lesson on impermanence, but no more, OK?)
  4. depression (let’s just go home to Minnesota.  I don’t want to see the Colosseum, I don’t want to have to find someone to fix the door, what else did they take?), and
  5. acceptance (Fine, dammit.  We’ll buy enough clothes for now, and toiletries, and I guess I can do without my precious laptop for three more months, and let’s sit down and change all the $%^&* passwords we can think of so the thieves can’t do more damage).

My “precious laptop” had been backed up pretty often to the “Cloud,” thanks to Breck’s google-doc system, but some documents and many photos from the last eight months are now just plain gone.  (Yes, we had also backed our computers up to a hard drive, but alas,  the thieves got the hard drive too–it was packed away in our luggage.) The best photos have been saved here, on this blog, which lives in the Cloud, too.  Meanwhile, our son Jackson, who was robbed four years ago in Minneapolis,  helped me remotely lock my computer, and walked me through creating backup systems I should have had in place before now.  He is a gem.  Here he is with our soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, Mackenzie:

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And Lynnell and I are both fine.  Uninjured.  It’s just stuff and arrangements.  Lynnell said she had double-trauma: first, getting all her belongings stolen; then realizing she would have to go shopping, something she hates. But Jennifer, who is shopping-savvy and highly-organized, shepherded her through two big-box stores, Decathalon and H&M. and they managed to buy just about everything she needed (plus more!) in less than three hours.

Yesterday, we went to see an English-speaking doctor who wrote new prescriptions for the medications we had been carrying.  The appointment cost us $50, and the Rx were filled down the street in ten minutes for one-fourth the cost of what it would be in the USA.  We said goodbye to Carter and Jennifer, and I found a Big and Tall store with great stuff, and then bought some wedding bowties made in the back room of the shop.

Other than being shellshocked, really, we have had a great time.  The “kids” were so utterly sane and adult, so adept at finding amazing restaurants and patiently waiting in line for them (and it was worth it, just to savor the pasta).  They also love walking, and this is a great city for it.  We saw the Pope on Sunday, at St. Peter’s, in his white Popemobile, waving and encouraging the faithful to work for justice in the world and nurture their inner lives so they wouldn’t burn out.  Good advice for us, too.  We saw the Colosseum, which is bigger than I could have imagined, and its history is so gruesome.  We spent a long time in the Pantheon, which has been perfectly preserved for 1800+ years, and couldn’t get enough of that shaft of sunlight coming in through the circular opening at the top of the dome.

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We took a slow walking tour of the ruins of the Roman Forum, and sat in the sun while the “kids” bought a very cool gift for someone back home who might be reading this.  We will be eternally grateful to these two for parenting us through our ordeal.

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We will get around to writing about our four days in Istanbul.  Lynnell is giving me her laptop every morning, and I will find pictures from wikimedia to replace my stolen ones, and will properly cite my usage.  We might write about our two days in Figueres, Spain, where we learned that Salvador Dalí was an amazing artist and despicable human being.  Figueres was where we waited for our van to be ready at the VW dealer, after having flown from Istanbul to Barcelona to resume VanLife.

But Rome is a wonderful city, loud and full of tourists following guides, and full of monuments to the vanity of men who built maybe the greatest empire ever by systematically stealing from others and then building infrastructure that lasts for ages.

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This is Nero: a paranoic, thief, bigot, liar, and very cruel, humorless man.  The pigeon and the graffito “Hi” made me smile.