A friend recently wrote a simple statement to me. We were PMing about a personal matter as I prepare to return to Urbino for a semester. She referenced seeing Italy this time through a different set of eyes. She has no idea how much that phrase circles around in the back of my mind. Now I am asking myself, “Whose eyes do I really want to see Italy through?” and “Do I even have a choice in that?”
The Historian’s Eyes: My first semester in Urbino, I was a neophyte to the world of history and culture. Trying to learn terminology, figure out where I fit in the field, was it the right field for me, and determining did I have the guts to go beyond a second BA into graduate school or forging a new history related career path. Obviously, I found the courage and stamina to leap into the abyss. Three years later, I understand the academic jargon of my field. I can’t simply just view an artifact, exhibit, or landscape. Almost automatically I end up analyzing messaging, interpreting the past and present lenses locals and outsiders use to understand the resource, contemplating what bias or myth exists in the display, searching for the elements of politics, identity, and place; and lastly, pondering site management strategies to ensure that particular representation of humanity endures for future generations. The downside to becoming a historian is one cannot ignore the complex subject matter we work with and to a certain extent; we lose the ability to merely enjoy a place. For research and class purposes, the historian and heritage manager will be ever present. She has to be.
Those of the inner child: As I traverse the coastline and plains then ascend into the ever-rising mountains of Italy, part of me hopes the child that lies within will still find wonder in new and old locations. That I will want to race my peers up the rocks to be Queen of the Hill as I did a friend who constantly pushed me to do more than I thought I ever could in Cinque Terre. Hopefully, I will still experience ancient structures and new foods with amazement, excitement, and a certain sense of innocence, which so frequently fades as we age. The one part of childhood that has never died is the desire to question and understand. No doubt my list of why’s and hows will grow exponentially in the coming days.
Romantic Visions: The writer in me is anxious to once again fall in love with spectacular sunsets filled with amazing color. I want to get lost in the fantasy of Ancient Rome, Medieval Castles, and Renaissance Palaces. To be humbled and brought to my knees in museums and churches filled with incredible works of art. I want to be swept away into the past, hear the shouts of the audience filling the stands of the coliseums or circuses while gladiators fight and chariots race. Walking the canals of Venice, I want to slip back in time to when women wore fabulous dresses; the men, cloaks and tricorn hats with matching masks for lavish Carnival balls. Or to picture tall ships carrying various goods sailing into her harbors. Standing on the hills and stone streets of Urbino, Verona, and Firenze, I imagine knights and noblemen on horseback making their way across the countryside or partaking in lively discussions within the walls of stately homes. I see farmers from all periods of history tending their fields in the never-ending rolling green hills. Vineyards and orchards tempt the palate with the promise of delicious dishes along with outstanding drink. And how can I forget the gentle lull of the train? I can almost hear the soothing clack-clack of the wheels against rails as I type.
The Eyes I Never Wanted to See Italy Through: Italy is a special and almost sacred place for me. I enjoy naively believing it conjures dreams and inspires despite its challenges. That disaster cannot mar the country’s beauty or spirit. That my world of history, romance, art, and wonder could not ever merge with that of my old profession: catastrophe response. After all, the only time large-scale calamity struck the boot-shaped peninsula was that ominous day Vesuvius buried the surrounding towns in 79 AD. Of course, I know that is far from the truth. Wildfires and devastating earthquakes shattered that fragile fallacy this week. All at once I wanted to extend a hand to Italy, hated that life can sometimes be cruelly unpredictable, and fully felt an odd mix of loss, frustration, awe, and hope that arises after a catastrophe. I worried about my friends and professional connections that live in Italy. Thankfully, everyone reported in safe and sound online. I have been anxiously watching the news and reading up on the affected communities as both adjuster and cultural heritage professional. In some ways, the historian/heritage professional is almost as familiar as the adjuster. Both evaluate damages and try to find a way to restore what once was, document the event, and in certain respects preserve what cannot be salvaged. They try to protect what is left through mitigation strategies and help individuals find meaning so moving forward can occur. Lastly, they gather information that may assist with how to better plan for the next time disaster strikes a region.
Nothing prepares one for how overwhelming it will be to enter a community in a state of total destruction. The damage left in the wake of an earthquake, tornado, or mass flood is nightmarish. The smells alone from a disaster site possess the power to provoke visceral reactions. Molded and flooded out structures produce a putrid odor that automatically churns my stomach just looking at a picture of green or black spotted drywall. Structure fires have another distinctive scent recognizable a mile away. Once you survive or work that type of event, other strange and small things besides smells will trigger flashbacks to it. A piece of stone, a certain color of paint, a similar sound, symbols such as a simple x spray-painted on a door or wall brings you right back to a chaotic and hellish time.
My first assignment ever was as an earthquake apprentice. The company that hired me was looking to train the next generation of earthquake adjusters. It had been awhile since a devastating one hit the US and a growing shortage of adjusters with the knowledge of how to properly estimate earthquake related damages concerned the financial industry. I was fortunate in that my training occurred on contentious, but old claims from the Northridge Earthquake versus a live event. A judge ordered the files be reopened after finding opportunities in their original adjustments. My boss at the time told me, “You will never work another job like this one. You will also never forget what you learn here.” He was right. Cracks took on an entirely new life. Soil, clay, stone, tile, wood, cement, and plaster evolved from simple materials to storytellers eight years after the California landscape shook and rolled. If a structure collapsed, careful evaluations must be done and measurements taken to compensate people for their loss. Epoxy could be used to repair cracked foundations. Glass never cleans out of carpet, so remove and replace it. Some things can be shored up or repaired; others must immediately be replaced. Attics must be explored and one must have the courage to crawl the underside of whatever structure you are estimating not on a slab. Crawlspaces can be creepy and disgusting things to enter on a normal day, let alone after a disaster. I learned from seasoned adjusters, highly respected engineers, a slew of experts, attorneys, those who suffered the loss, and old claims files just how destructive the world we live in can be. How quickly lives and material can vanish. Sure, we all see it on TV, but until you live it; until you have to work with it around the clock, it never truly registers how powerful Mother Nature is.
The images of Umbria and the impacted areas of Marche this week broke my heart. Those poor people who died! Those who fortunately survived will need to muster a great deal of courage and sheer will in order to forge a head. The struggle to regain a sense of normalcy for the damaged cities will no doubt be an exhausting one. The trauma of such an event takes a toll that lasts a lifetime for those who live through it, along with those who respond to assist. However, like anything else, hope eventually springs forth and positive stories can be found among the negative ones. Those graphic pictures and news stories took me back to that first assignment years ago as well as the last major natural disaster I worked. I know that regardless of where various cities are in the stages of cleanup, seasoned eyes will read the headlines once more in the built environment. They will recognize the plastered over cracks or repairs giving away what happened there just as quickly as they will an empty outline of a foundation. Sometimes the small reminders strike a survivor, first responder, or adjuster just as hard as seeing a building in pieces scattered across the ground.
Sadly, my two worlds blurred for a fleeting moment in 2013. Hiking the coastline of Cinque Terre, we came across two damaged houses. The region experienced massive landslides two years earlier. Immediately, my heart fell, staring into what once was someone’s home. The remaining shells teetered over a gorge with their exterior walls missing. The adjuster in me began trying to figure out construction techniques and how exactly to estimate that type of structure. The person in me not only felt a sense of loss, but a strange sense of invasion. I frequently experienced that on deployments. Here I am, an outsider, stepping into a person’s most intimate space. The one safe haven from the stressors of the world, the one location where a person can hopefully be himself or herself without anyone casting judgment on them: their private home. I wondered what memories and events occurred in the room before me. Had the resident enjoyed living there? Were they insured? Where did they go? How much of the home and their belongings were lost? And darkly, I pondered the question no one ever wants to ask: did they survive? In case they didn’t, I offered a prayer for them and others in the area before we began walking the trail again. The amazing beauty of the landscape and teal water lost a bit of their magic after stumbling across that graphic reminder of how even the most inviting environment harbors a darker side.
In all honesty, I selfishly want Italy to retain the illusion of rolling green hills, tall brown mountains, and aqua waters seeped in a rich history. I hope the romantic writer, the historian, and the child will overpower the more disconcerting catastrophe responder. However, the realist in me knows that the people in Umbria and Marche need that adjuster and horrified fellow human to extend a helping hand to them, to empathize with their loss, and share their story. Lastly, as harsh a reminder as it is, the adjuster is needed to make me pause and be grateful for loved ones, the opportunity to be back in Italy, and the simple things in life. Tragedy re-shifts priorities to the things we should regularly appreciate, but sometime the day-to-day grind of everyday life pushes them to the back burner.
Please consider helping the people of central Italy. You can assist in relief efforts by donating to these organizations:
The Italian Red Cross: http://www.cri.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/31392
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:
The Italian American Relief website:
Or if you are in Italy, donate blood and needed supplies to the various organizations collecting them.