Italy Trip Highlights May 9-26, 2010


(as reported by Mrs. Pamela Hollis)

Wednesday, May 12

This is our second full day in Italy. In the mornings, we've had class time in the student lounge at Saints Bible Institute (SBI). Dr. Jones is taking the students through Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, in part, looking at how Italy is used as a setting in Shakespeare's plays. Mr. Harle has been leading the students in observation exercises, offering insightful writing prompts that are designed to help us identify preconceptions and help us be open to and observant of new experiences.
This morning, I read from Petrarch's "The Ascent of Mount Ventoux," a letter to his confessor in which Petrarch describes a mountain he climbed with his brother. The journey made him reflect on the spiritual summits and valleys he had journeyed through and the miles and years he hoped remained to him. We challenged our students and ourselves to think in terms of pilgrimage--traveling for the sake of the soul--rather than just seeing cool buildings and enjoying new tastes. New experiences are rich, but they should take us deeper into this world that God has made that is full of people he cares for instead of just deeper into ourselves.

Yesterday and today we spent in San Lorenzo di Arzene, the town in which SBI is located. A short stroll away from the campus is a fountain where we fill our water bottles. There's a café called Martin's that has fabulous cappuccinos, and Sam Spatola is spoiling us rotten with homemade Italian cooking. Later today after riposa–that's right, Italy has a built-in nap time everyday from 1:00 to 3:30–we're heading to the town of Pordenone to explore. Tomorrow we're heading out for a day trip to Aquilea famous for its Roman ruins and 3rd century church!

Monday, May 17

On Saturday (May 15), we took a train to Venice. For some of us, it was a first train ride. We rode for just over an hour, and most of the way, we looked out the windows and watched the Dolomite mountains—beautiful! It was nice to ride together, to have time to talk and think through some of the final weeks of the semester we just finished. When we arrived in Venice, we were greeted in the train station with lots of rain and hawkers selling umbrellas. We took a vaporetto (water bus) ride through the Grand Canal to Saint Mark's Square, and most of us watched Venice float by with our jaws hanging open in wonder. Venice was breathtakingly beautiful. We toured the Doge's palace and could not take in all the lovely and old and interesting artifacts we saw. We wandered through the crooked, crowded streets (some of them look more like tiny alleyways—you can stretch out your arms and touch both walls at the same time), past brightly colored doorways and blooming rosebushes. It was a particular treat to walk past (and sometimes buy from) the shopkeepers and merchants of Venice, especially as we walked over the Rialto Bridge.

Yesterday (Sunday), we had a worship service on campus. Sam Spatola challenged us to think more boldly about our faith. Do we agonize over our choices, or do we walk in faith, talking with God and saying, "I am trying to follow you, to make a good decision with the information and reason I have. I'm going to go forward and trust you to stop me" instead of hanging back timidly, waiting for who-knows-what to just fall into our laps. Later that day, we were taken to the nearby town of Udine, where SBI and their parent organization, Saints Equipped to Evangelize (SEE) has a church plant. It's been going for a few years and has about 30-40 regular attendees. This is the only evangelical church in the city, and the size, for Italy, is apparently quite large. Sitting quietly in the Italian-language service, I think many in our group were struck by this fact—Italy is considered an unreached nation, with less than 1% of the population claiming to be Christians.

It's a sobering thought, especially as we have spent so much time marveling at so many beautiful, ancient churches. Everything that is beautiful and good is a gift from God and has the ability to draw us to him. These old cathedrals were designed to point to God, and so few pay attention.

Thursday, May 20

I've heard people talk about the light in certain places--how some city looks brighter, or softer, or more hazy. Florence was golden. We walked (miles and miles by the end of our two days there!) through piazzas and palaccios and up and down alleyways and we marveled the whole time. Florence was fairly grubby--graffiti covered most surfaces--but it was astonishingly beautiful at the same time.

Once we arrived in the city, we walked to our hostel to stow our overnight bags. On the way there, we walked up an alleyway and through a piazza and I couldn't believe my eyes--we were in the place that contains a copy of Michelangelo's David and Cellini's Perseus--we were standing right there! The students were amused at my astonishment. They kept chuckling at me as I discovered that the whole city had plaques with Dante quotations on them. We ogled monuments and walked through the Duomo--and most of our group hiked up the miles of staircases to the top of the Dome to gaze on the Florence skyline. We had two full days of discovery. Our large group broke down into smaller groups and explored the city. 

Friday, May 21

Today, in “fair Verona, where we lay our scene” (name that play!) we enjoyed ourselves immensely. After a few rest-and-writing days for recovery after our Florence adventures, we loaded up a bus and rode a few hours away to Verona. I had only known Verona as the scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—one of my least favorite of his plays—and Two Gentlemen of Verona—not one that tops the reading charts. But Verona was charming, a city bisected by a winding river, with walkways and bridges, coffee shops, and museums. There were flowers growing everywhere in bright profusion, and we watched fishermen dangle their poles in the river.

The third largest coliseum from Roman times is located here, and we began our day in Verona wandering around in it. The arena is used for operas and performances, and in the giant theatre, one could certainly imagine being caught up in pomp and grandeur and staging. After that, we headed off to find Juliet’s balcony. Verona seems to take great delight in its tragic love story. Local legend (perhaps created by the local tourism industry?) holds that Shakespeare’s feuding families and their star-crossed children actually lived here, and you can find maps pointing out Juliet’s house and tomb and Romeo’s family home. Juliet’s house, with her famous balcony, is a sort of shrine to romance—artistic renditions of poignant scenes cover the house and tourists leave notes in all languages, little odes to love or missives asking Juliet for help (which struck us as deeply ironic—she was not quite thirteen when she fell in love, and she met a very sad end—and people ask for her advice?) We walked miles around the city, climbing hills to see what was at the top and poking around an archaeological museum, catching glimpses of Italy’s ancient past.

Monday, May 24

We spent a good portion of the day at Saints Bible Institute unwinding, finishing up some literary discussions, and writing. We had our last creative evening, sharing our writing with each other. In my role as an instructor, there is little that pleases me more than seeing students latch onto ideas and experiences and make them their own, to be creative with them, and to confidently express themselves. We shared mock-epic poems and “legends,” beautifully rendered descriptions of sights and sounds, pages from our journals in which we wondered about our place in this vast world. To do so, to wonder and examine our experiences, leaves us open to growth—and then to share that with likeminded people certainly is a grace, for which all of us are thankful.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Italy. We are headed to the town of Barcis in the foothills of the Dolomites. We’ve watched these mountains through our windows at SBI. They are striking, but then, most of the things we’ve seen and done here in Italy have been striking and inspiring. Again, to visit a place we’ve read about helps the stories come to life, but such a trip has helped us create our own stories, too.