One of my favorite holidays is Mardi Gras. Or as other parts of the world call it, Carnival or in Italy- Carnevale! I enjoy participating in all of the various festivities the holiday brings. It has also been a research topic for me as an undergraduate and graduate student.
The holiday most likely got its start in Antiquity. Carnevale developed from the Greek and Roman festivals of Bacchanalia, (honoring the god Bacchus aka Dionysus, the god of wine and debauchery), Lupercalia, (honoring the god Pan, the god of all that is wild and fertility), and Saturnalia, (honoring Saturn, the god of plenty and time). It initially spread with the Romans as their empire expanded across Europe. The festivals were combined into one celebration after Catholic leaders adopted them into the Christian holiday schedule leading up to the Lenten season. This adoption gave the holiday its immortal life around the world. It thrived during the Middle Ages and Renaissance then migrated to the Americas with French explorers and Spanish conquistadors. It particularly took root in the U.S. South and Brazil.
Carnevale is traditionally a time of celebration, excess, licentiousness, impulsiveness, and sexual deviance. The tradition of disguise at this time of year is steeped in politics in addition to allowing folks to have fun. From Antiquity through the eighteenth century, the holiday was the one time of year the common man could publicly critique the ruling class and church officials. Additionally, women could freely challenge patriarchal social structure by dressing and behaving like men. Any other time of year these behaviors could bring harsh reprimands or enact criminal penalties against those who did such things. While I am keeping it light in this post, it is only fair to share that Mardi Gras also has a dark legacy that includes riots, discrimination, and unfortunate deaths.
I have attended Mardi Gras celebrations throughout the US. But, I have always wanted to experience the Venetian version of the holiday. My 2013 semester abroad allowed me to check Venetian Carnevale off my Dematury Plan. For those wondering what a dematurity plan is, you can read more about it here. Back to Venezia and Carnevale!
Venice is awe-inspiring any time of year. But during Carnevale the city takes on a whole different life. When surrounded by folks in ornate masks and lavish costumes, the imagination runs wild. The period gowns and men’s suits make it very easy to envision similar celebrations that occurred centuries earlier around the turquoise canals. After seeing the opening events in person, I couldn’t think of a more perfect back drop for Grace and Dante to cross paths once again.
Carnevale allows Dante to unabashedly be the connoisseur of wine and women that he is in one of two places he is comfortable enough to let his guard down. Dante was born and raised in Venezia during the Renaissance. He grew up navigating the waters of the lagoon with his “fisherman/troubadour father” and his mother was a seamstress by trade. While he was a commoner in his youth, he eventually rises through Venice’s ranks after he poses as a newly-minted marquee who gains the title through his work for the Doges. Rumors float around the city that the “Marchese” grows his wealth as a merchant participating in trade along the old Silk Road in addition to being a mercenary for hire. (The actual truth is Dante invents the Marchese and all the rumors, so he can hide amongst the humans of his hometown when he needs a break from being a Horseman.) Throughout the Four Horsemen series, frequent comparisons are drawn between Dante and Giacomo Casanova, another famous Venetian, who also had a reputation for romantic scandal, gambling, and misadventures.
The costume Dante wears at Istria’s ball is made from black velvet and trimmed with gold accents along with his custom mask. The material and colors tie him to Venice’s guilds and legacy of distinctive extravagance. Lucchesi refugees migrated to Venice in the fourteenth century bringing their trade of velvet weaving with them. During the Renaissance, Venetian velvet emerges as the highest quality and most sought-after velvet in Europe. Prior to this time, Venezia’s textile trade mainly consisted of silk manufacturing. Mask making was also formalized as a trade with the rise of the Guild of Decorators during this same period of time. Demand for Venetian masks grew, not only for Carnevale, but for theater and other events throughout Europe.
Gold is used throughout many structures as a display of Venice’s wealth. The golden mosaics and gold leaf throughout St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice highlight the prestige and riches of Venice’s leading residents in addition to celebrating the greatness of God. Gold leaf adorns the Venetian Custom House and structural aspects of the Doge’s Palace along with the artwork contained within its walls. Venice’s emblem is the golden winged lion of St. Mark. From an ancestry stand point, Dante’s family coat of arms includes the colors of black and gold. Additionally, the Four Horsemen attire themselves in black uniforms with gold insignias.
Grace’s dress and mask are also gold in color, trimmed in cream lace, gold ribbon, emeralds, and pearls to mirror and contrast with Dante. After all, she is the enemy sent to relieve Dante of a sacred relic he carries with him in Venice. The gold color provides the illusion that she is on equal footing with him, and of course, the rich color catches his eye. The pearls and emeralds hint at her connections to the immortal realm and sea. Pearls have historically been symbols of virtue and integrity; including them in her costume creates a fun symbolic contradiction between how Grace behaves at the ball and her true nature. Hiding behind a mask allows Grace to embrace the seductive persona she invents to ensnare Dante’s attention. It also provides her a much-needed sense of security. With her face concealed, she believes she might actually get away with fooling the immortal Horseman and escape Venice unscathed.
It’s amazing what a costume, merriment, and a little bit of vino can bring out in us all at certain times of year. I know I can get a little more rambunctious or free-spirited than normal, especially when wandering the canals of Venice in a cloak and mask, or shouting “throw me something, mister” on the streets of New Orleans and Metairie.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, and National Crêpe Day was last week. Both had me thinking of romantic breakfasts in bed. One of the most sensual and romantic breakfasts I think one can prepare is blackberry crêpes. A man that makes these for me (or fresh summer peach crêpes) will own my heart forever.
The blackberry is often overshadowed by its brightly red-colored peer, the strawberry, on romantic holidays. This is such a tragedy. One should not underestimate the ability of the blackberry to add sweet flavors to a variety of desserts and dishes. It is equally delicious with chocolate, not to mention some people believe it is just as potent an aphrodisiac.
Several websites and one book state that tenth-century Arab physicians prescribed blackberries for assistance in the bedroom; however, I haven’t found any sources that support that, yet. I’ve added a few new items to my reading list that include medical texts from medieval Arab and Islamic doctors. I am curious to see if this is fact or some type of myth that is randomly repeated because one person said it once a long time ago. But, I did find a modern-day study that supports eating blackberries can assist with erectile dysfunction in my search for medieval medical texts. Blackberries and blackberry tea were also frequently prescribed for GI issues and gum health.
For those of you that loathe Valentine’s Day, the blackberry crêpe is also the perfect fruity breakfast for the dreaded day of romance. Doing my research into the humble blackberry, there is plenty of myth associated with Lucifer, ill-fate, and the fruit.
The legend of Lucifer cursing the blackberry and making it the ugly purple-blackish color it is today has to be my favorite fruit-related myth. It is said that when Michael tossed Lucifer out of heaven, the Devil tumbled into hell and his fall was broken by a thorny blackberry bush. Upset that a plant had the audacity to stab the Lord of All That Is Evil in the arse, the poor blackberry bush endured Lucifer’s wrath. Not only did the Devil curse it to be forever ugly, he supposedly spat and peed on it. Some versions of the tale say he also scorched the bush to add insult to injury.  Talk about a diva tantrum! I searched the internet for artwork of the Devil fighting with a blackberry bush. Unfortunately, no medieval artist appears to have captured this legendary moment for us.
Lucifer’s curse is why folks in Britain and Ireland celebrate Michaelmas with blackberry pies, and in the Middle Ages, believed one should never eat blackberries after September 29. Additionally, those of Celtic decent believed that fairies consumed blackberries. Woe on the one who doesn’t leave the first fruits of the season for the fae.
In When The Moon Bleeds, Dante brings Grace wild blackberry crêpes for breakfast to make up for upsetting her the day before. While she enjoys her delicious breakfast, the crêpes and blackberry filling end up becoming the weapon of choice in a clash with another character. I don’t want to spoil the scene, so I won’t elaborate on it much more. Interestingly enough, this scuffle leads to a message of bad tidings from the Hasan sorceress causing the Horsemen and Grace a great deal of grief.
While I felt like I was almost writing blasphemy to have crêpes flying and blackberry sauce scalding skin, I couldn’t think of a better food to deploy in an early morning brawl. Eggs wouldn’t fling as well, syrup would be too sticky and thick, and pancakes wouldn’t sail thru the air with ease.
For those of you who are curious about what types of crêpes could make an author feel like a blasphemer to write they were flung instead of savored, here is a link to John D Folse’s Wild Blackberry Crêpes recipe: http://www.jfolse.com/recipes/desserts/fruits11.htm.
To make the peach crêpes I mentioned above, use this same recipe, but swap fresh cut summer peaches for the blackberries and use a sweet Moscato wine such as Stella Rosa’s Honey Gold Peach Moscato instead of regular white wine. (Please excuse my amateur plating and food photography skills.)
If you try the crêpe recipe, please let me know what you think of them. I’d also love to hear what folks are enjoying for breakfast on Valentine’s Day!
Whether you are loved up with a Valentine or are single and cursing couples everywhere, may the day be good to you!
Thanks for reading!
 “How Can Food Improve ED Symptoms?”
 Verma et al., “Rubus Fruticosus (Blackberry) Use as an Herbal Medicine”; Hummer, “Rubus Pharmacology.”
 “Don’t Eat Blackberries After September 29! And Other Superstitions”; Albright, “Michaelmas.”
 “Don’t Eat Blackberries After September 29! And Other Superstitions”; Albright, “Michaelmas.”
Albright, Mary Beth. “Michaelmas: The Day the Devil Spit on Your Blackberries.” Culture, September 28, 2015. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/michaelmas-the-day-the-devil-spit-on-your-blackberries.
CulinaryLore. “Don’t Eat Blackberries After September 29! And Other Superstitions,” March 26, 2014. https://culinarylore.com/food-myths:no-blackberries-after-september-29/.
The Checkup. “How Can Food Improve ED Symptoms?,” June 8, 2021. https://www.singlecare.com/blog/erectile-dysfunction-diet/.
Hummer, Kim E. “Rubus Pharmacology: Antiquity to the Present.” HortScience 45, no. 11 (November 2010): 1587–91. https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI.45.11.1587.
Verma, Rameshwar, Tushar Gangrade, Rakesh Punasiya, and Chetan Ghulaxe. “Rubus Fruticosus (Blackberry) Use as an Herbal Medicine.” Pharmacognosy Reviews 8 (July 1, 2014): 101–4. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.134239.
Wait! What?! This statement made by a reviewer took me aback. I write historical fantasy, time travel, romance, and historical fiction. Academically and professionally, I am a public historian and cultural heritage consultant. Had I botched incorporating aspects of history and heritage that badly?
Perplexed, the first things I asked myself after hearing this remark were:
- Did I fail to world-build properly?
- Did I fail to include historically or culturally significant things?
- Did I need to add more period language or other cultural aspects into the narrative?
I went back and re-read the manuscript being critiqued. While there were a few places to polish up my prose and world-building, the larger issue driving this remark came down to the reviewer’s perception and definition of history. I learned this after I asked them for examples of where specifically historical and cultural heritage aspects were missing from their perspective, so I could fix those areas. From their viewpoint, I wasn’t consistently using great people history and focusing on grand architectural sites, so the reviewer couldn’t make a historical or cultural connection with all the other elements that supported period, culture, and place.
I felt this would make a worthy blog topic. In fact, it probably makes for multiple blog topics. History and heritage are broad fields with a ton of complexity to them. There are also heated debates about the definition of what history is and isn’t in academic and professional circles. So, it isn’t surprising that similar issues would arise when someone reads or critiques my work, especially if I am jumping around in time, as the Horsemen novels often do. The intent of this post is to do my part in ensuring all my readers are attuned to the fact that culture, identity, history, and heritage stem from more than famous, elite individuals and grand architectural sites. I don’t expect my readers to be historians or history buffs at all. It’s nice when they are, but that is definitely not required to enjoy my novels. A love of reading, a bit of imagination, and a sense of adventure are all one needs to engage with my books.
To keep things simple, history, heritage, and culture are demonstrated regularly through the words we speak, the clothing we wear, the food we eat, and virtually everything around us. To gloss over social and cultural aspects of history and heritage is to ignore a great number of important elements that define a place, period, or individual. You are doing a huge disservice to the past and present if you keep your historical viewpoint solely focused on kings, queens, battles, and dates. And if I am only writing about those things, from my perspective, I am failing miserably as a historical fiction and historical fantasy novelist. Sure, all of those things can be important elements when setting up a novel, but if you are ignoring all the subtler items that share important historical perspective like those supporting great rulers, trades, craft, agriculture, literature, art, etc… you are missing out on a well-rounded snapshot of what a time or place was truly like. Please do not rob yourself of viewing history through the multitude of lenses that exist as we look at the multifaceted story of the world. By using those different lenses, we better understand and connect with others as well as critically analyze events.
So, what are some ways I slip history and heritage into my writing that might be easily overlooked?
If I have a character from a particular region or period, you’ll learn a great deal by simply reading their name. This also applies to an animal’s name associated with that character. Take a minute to look up the name to learn where it is from or what it means. Yes, I expect my readers to look up things they get curious about or things they aren’t familiar with. Or at minimum, visit my website or social media to see if I have written about a particular topic. While I try to define things in dialogue or narrative, I would slow pacing a great deal if I did that with every little detail. I also won’t foot note fictional works. Some authors do, but in my opinion, foot notes belong in non-fiction and academic texts. To see them in a fictional piece weirds me out and gives me nightmares about formatting. I have to fight those formatting battles in my academic and non-fiction writing. I don’t want to do it in a fictional work.
Food is one tool in writing that can help set time and place. Never underestimate its value and importance in conjuring memory or engaging all the senses with a literary work. If there is a scene where the characters are eating and drinking, I try to give the names of dishes and drinks, not just use generic terms like wine or meat. By naming drinks or foods, I am providing a historical snapshot of what people commonly ate at that time or a glimpse into some aspect of cultural identity. I really enjoy describing textures, scents, and flavors when I want to get a reader’s attention or immerse them and the character into that particular culinary moment, especially if a food or smell is triggering a memory. If I can’t find something that ties to both period and place, I promise you whatever the characters are imbibing or savoring ties to the culture they are blending into. Or they are having a new experience learning about another time or place. For example, Dante, a character from the Renaissance, falls in love with caramel after visiting modern day, but learns he hates Starbucks chai lattes as they don’t taste like a chai tea should, based on what he has drank in the past.
Textiles, jewelry, and art can provide another glimpse into historical periods and cultural beliefs. If I am giving you details about jewelry and clothing, I am offering you a glimpse into the character and their ties to cultural beliefs or a place. Watch out for those little things because they may surface a contradiction in who the character has told us they are and who they actually are. If a piece of art shows up, it almost always holds crucial clues to a task a character is undertaking. Artwork can also serve as a bridge between a modern reader and the past. Frequently, the piece prompts dialogue or an inner monologue as another method of relaying historical and cultural information in a nondisruptive manner. No one likes to be jarred out of a story by an information dump.
Weapons, uniforms, and armor also hint at a character’s identity and who they work for. Are they carrying a rapier, short sword, an arming sword, or a scimitar? What inscriptions, symbols, or gems are incorporated into the weapon or armor? What weapon is a character comfortable using or do they prefer to use? Rayne, War in my books, prefers using a sword or hand-to-hand in engagements, but has no problem picking up a gun and using it. Dante finds guns deplorable and ungentlemanly. He prefers an arming sword or sabre when engaged in a fight. Dante’s attitude reflects the viewpoints of many an aristocrat or upper-class military officer as gunpowder, guns, and cannon first arrive in Europe.
I use a variety of languages in my books. I intermix foreign words with American English as most of my readers are American English speakers. Or if I use full phrases, I translate them in the narrative or in parentheses for the reader. Doing so reminds folks of a character’s native language and adds authenticity as well as historical perspective.
Character Perspectives. This one can get tricky as I have the challenge of using modern language and navigating the modern political landscape while still being true to what a man or woman from a certain age would most likely think about a topic. Yes, my male characters can be misogynistic a-holes at times. That would be perfectly normal for a medieval soldier. Or a modern-day character may have to tolerate things they normally wouldn’t to survive in addition to challenging the other “older” characters to grow a bit. I might also rock your viewpoint on topics like chivalry. Modern-day usage of the word “chivalry” certainly doesn’t align with what it meant in the past. My characters do poke at one another in conversations when it comes to a variety of topics. A good debate between them or some friendly humoring, when appropriate, can be an easy way to provide historical context.
Lastly, Place. I prefer to use real world locations as I think they provide stronger anchors for a reader to visualize. However, I will make up one if needed. While I do incorporate famous places like Rome or London, I also intentionally choose lesser-known locations to set story in quite frequently. This allows me to introduce readers to new places that are historically significant and allows flexibility in crafting narrative, along with showing the historical significance of contributions from smaller communities often overshadowed by larger ones. As a public historian, I try to make folks curious enough they might want to learn more or visit that location on their next trip.
While I do my best to provide accurate and authentic historical aspects into my stories, there are times where I will intentionally deviate from the period or run with an obscure historical theory about something or someone, as that works better for my narrative. My books are fictional and are meant more as a form of edutainment than as a secondary source. Sometimes authors in my genres do such a good job of blending fact and fiction we may cause readers to challenge experts in the field over items when they shouldn’t. Please always double check things before debating them with a historian. I am also human and may make a mistake, but I try to catch those mistakes before the book goes to market.
I am revamping my blog to further explore some of these nuanced points, to shine the spotlight on real historical figures and places that appear in my books, share recipes so you can try what my characters are munching on, and to just stay in touch more frequently.
If you ever have questions about something in my books, please reach out. I am happy to answer whatever they may be. You can contact me via social media, this website, my podcast, or leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading!
Here I sit, contemplating the end of another semester abroad. As usual, the semester flew by way too fast once courses got into full swing and thesis research commenced. I didn’t regularly blog. I didn’t get half the things done I planned, nor did I write as much on the thesis as I anticipated. I learned that advanced field research is exceptionally challenging and rewarding if you find items overseas. Still, I had an incredible semester. I explored old and new places in Italy, returned to England for a week, enjoyed Spain for a few days, and had a fantastic two days in Morocco.
This study abroad was very different from others I participated in. My peers consisted of younger students with a wider range of majors than the prior two cohorts. I really enjoyed their energy and perspective on a number of things. If you don’t surround yourself with a variety of age groups, consider changing that. We can learn from young and old alike. Younger folks can really remind you of ways to creatively view the world. Contrary to popular stereotypes, there are millennials that have some wonderful ideas and thoughts on how the world can move forward. They also have the work ethic and ability to take those concepts forward with some mentoring. I study and work with them daily.
Our courses focused on ways to read history, culture, and heritage in a country through film, cuisine, agriculture, and beverages. At first that may sound like such an easy and fun course load, but believe me when I say it isn’t easy. (I’ll give you the fun part. It was amazing to sample everything we studied and to watch great Italian films.) You merely scratch the surface by learning what wines, foods, and films are made in a region. You must go deeper than that to really understand how those items emerged in a particular place and the importance of them.
We regularly delved into:
- The theories and politics behind food/film
- Was a food/beverage really native to Italy or did it migrate in an earlier time?
- What was the production methodology for an agricultural product?
- Does production preserve tradition?
- Did the food way and production methodology change over the centuries?
- How had economics along with watershed events reshaped regional cuisine in Italy?
- How had these things shaped and changed diets and cuisines around the world?
- Complicating the discussions, was how did the outsider like a tourist or agency with global reach alter a region’s cuisine or filmmaking?
Our readings had to be completed for our weekly field trips and visits by experts to make sense, which meant really managing our time. I challenge you to learn about the food you eat and what you drink from a tradition and roots perspective. Use the prompts above if they are helpful to make you think about cuisine at a deeper level than gastronomy. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Earthquakes rocked our Renaissance city regularly from the end of October forward. Thankfully, they only caused minor damage to Urbino. Two of the tremors required a building evacuation. I learned I could put my shoes on and run down three flights of stairs in mere seconds after shaking and rumbling woke me from a dead sleep early in the morning. If you read my earlier post about which eyes to view Italy through, the catastrophe adjuster found her picturesque landscape reminding her of how quickly life can change and to value the nonmaterial items like friends and family more. Italy and I need to find a way to compromise on how many times I am knocked out of my happy place and back into natural disasters. The Italians are growing tired of the regular tremoring too.
The best thing about this semester (besides eating great foods and drinking fabulous wines) is that it produced multiple moments of laughter and adventure. During downtime, we played rounds of a card game called Mao. We danced at the local discoteca. On Halloween, we and the Irish students costumed it up. For each trip we took, the group worked together making up fun improbable histories or tours. An improbable history is mixing fact and fiction to tell a story of a place. The words “Fano” and “bricks” can never be said without a round of laughter immediately following them. We successfully navigated a crazy transport system, enjoyed the sights and smells of leather, food, and spices in multiple markets at each location we visited, and Italy gave us some spectacular sunsets to marvel at.
My language skills are always a source of entertainment. I am ashamed to say my Italian did not come back at the level I hoped it would. Part of that was on me, the other part of that was due to how rigidly structured the Italy Program is now. My classmate fluent in Italian laughed after I messaged our hosts in Pompeii that we “borrowed” the train. I couldn’t help smirking as I pictured Antonio or Iolonda reading it and thinking, “What? They stole the train?” Or the time I couldn’t remember the word for pig and asked a vendor “Quanto per piggy?” The look I got was priceless. I and my travel buddy laughed so hard I almost cried. When working with a foreign language, always try to maintain a sense of humor to prevent becoming too frustrated with it or your mistakes. The Italians are great sports at letting you practice and will happily help you out with words or phrases if they elude you. Google translate can be a lifesaver, but use it with caution.
All in all, this semester created new opportunities and things to think about. It broadened my horizons yet again. It also reminded me of how fortunate I am and how some matters we stress about are truly trivial in the grand scheme of things. I need to finish packing up.
May you have a wonderful day or night wherever you are!
Contrary to the patriarchal beliefs of the most well known group to rule her, Rome is a woman. There is no fatherland; only a mother who nurtured western civilization. The ruins decorating her green and beige landscape display her courage. The changes from Antiquity to the Modern Age across her expanses share the lessons evolving her over the centuries.
She rises with wisdom and power. At other times, broken and beaten she falls from the mistakes of the men who once ruled her. She refuses to remain downtrodden and broken. In times of strife, a raw strength develops and forces Rome to reinvent herself. She throws off the mantle forced upon her to become a living and viable being once more.
She is the heart of the ancient world. She is the center of modern Italy. She is a vibrant place where cultures meld into one entity. The people inhabiting her streets represent the globe. The Mediterranean merges with Asia, Africa, and the New World. From the simple dishes of the cucina povera to the elaborately complex meals of the elite, Rome’s cuisine displays the blending of cultures. Middle Eastern spices add exotic flavoring to pastas, curries or saffron flavor meats and risottos, local fruits and vegetables color tasty plates. Her markets invite any guest to wander the stalls with rich scents wafting on the breeze and brilliant displays of culinary delights from all around.
Rome tempts and teases not only with gastronomical pleasures, she lures one in with architecture and artistic treasures. The masters of the entire art world decorate her elaborate palaces, the Vatican, and ancient structures. Contemporary and modern artists showcase their beloved works in museums, Graffiti colors the towering apartment buildings and adds character to otherwise plain subway cars. Art and structures serve as her adornments.
She conceals secrets only giving them up as she sees fit. We all bear scars and stories of past sins and experiences. Underneath the eye catching surface of this city lay stories of tragedy. Executions, murders, and riots mar the narrative of famous locations.
Campo dei Fiori’s elegant statue of Bruno, the white buildings, and vendor stalls conceal the brutal burning of a man who challenged the patriarchy of the Church. The stabbing of Caesar occurred in a site visitors view as a simple square and cat sanctuary. A museum inhabits a slaughterhouse. The Castel Sant Angelo’s Michael stared down as a silent witness to countless executions, starvation and torture. The Capitoline conceals its history of murder with museums and the forum. From Rome’s earliest beginnings, prisoners met their end here or authorities dragged them from the hilltop to the Tiber before throwing them into the murky green water. Rome’s founders kidnapped their brides from the Sabine people on the same site.
The eternal city: fought over, coveted, envied, scorned, bruised, admired, and sought after. She remains uniquely dignified, independent, and a place of mystery. She appears in films, yet is rarely ever the lead. She serves as the silent, but articulate narrator of Europe and all of her descendants. Forever important, yet relegated to the background by the stories of great men.
Yes, Rome is definitely a woman.
Our journey to Pompeii from Parma turned into a comedy of errors. There is nothing quite like navigating the train system in a foreign country. After accidentally buying tickets for a slower train that left at the same time as the faster one we initially wanted, we climbed on board to discover the AC and power outlets in our assigned car didn’t work. All eight of us had to be relocated to another car. Things seemed to work smoothly in our new seats. People napped, worked on homework, and enjoyed the picturesque countryside passing by.
Nearing Florence, the train slowed down. Instead of having a normal brief stop, I noticed the train remained in place and the engine cut off. Sure enough, an announcement came over the speakers that the train broke down adding a two – three hour delay to our trip. The conductor further instructed those of us Naples bound would ride out the delay on the outskirts of Florence while everyone else found spots on new trains. A half hour later the Naples bound folks received instruction to catch the departing train into Santa Maria Novella. The SMN train left in five minutes and we had to sprint a few platforms over. We all made the train change and headed into Florence’s most well known station. Fate really decided to test our desire to reach Napoli that night. A long line awaited at the ticket window and we only had two other options to get us down south. Keeping a sense of humor, a classmate of mine who is from Sicily and I stayed in line to find out if our group of eight wayward travelers could find seats on one of the two trains departing. Customer service found us room on a freccarossa. They are very nice trains that travel at high speeds if you have not been on one. Our arrival time changed from 2 am to 11 pm.
Luckily, our hosts were extremely understanding of the late arrival. They messaged us back with “don’t worry about it. The trains regularly run off schedule.” Iolanda and Antonio, the owners of the Airbnb Home Sweet Home, greeted our cab at the end of their driveway with smiles. Italians possess an amazing level of empathy for travel struggles. They also extend a warm and welcoming hospitality to guests that I haven’t experienced in any other country. Once we settled into our rooms warm Margherita pizza sat on the table at midnight for us train weary and starving students.
That midnight pizza was undoubtedly one of the best I’ve eaten. Iolanda and Antonio quickly became our adopted Italian family in Pompeii leading to a fantastic weekend of exploring Roman Southern Italy, sampling scrumptious seafood dishes and Southern specialties like arancini paired with rich wines cultivated in the volcanic soils of Vesuvius.
I had not realized how emotional it would be for me to return to Italy. Seeing familiar sights and hearing a language that hasn’t so completely filled my ears for almost three years now moved me to the point of tears several times. Awake for over 24 hours, I managed to communicate effectively with several Italians in their beautiful native tongue my first day on the ground. It is amazing how quickly a language can emerge from the depths of the mind with little prompting. Throughout the bus ride from Bologna into the gently rising hills of Marche, a sense of coming home overwhelmed me. I hadn’t expected that at all. I prepared for being excited, tired, stressed and a sense of the familiar, but never such a strong feeling of returning to one’s roots. While I have ancestors who lived in Italy, I have not personally lived in Italy long term. But a beautiful sunny day warmed my face after a brief nap to help fight through jet lag welcoming me back to Marche! As always, nightfall was magical offering another interesting view of the Palazzo Ducale.
After a somewhat restful night as sleep played games with me, our first two orientation days allowed me to start seeing Urbino through new eyes: those of someone thankful to return to an amazing place and those of the historian interpreting space/place along with spotting important, but sometimes overlooked details.
On Day 2, we dined on some wonderful food at a restaurant called Rago d’Oro positioned on the top end of Via Raffaello. Roberta and Mirko saved us the quad and lung killing direct climb up the monster hill by taking the easier winding back road up to the rear walls of the city. If you’ve ever been to Urbino, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you haven’t, just picture a 120 degree climb for about a mile. In adjuster speak, that would probably be an 11/12 pitch from hell made out of uneven cobblestones rough on the soles of the feet even in good shoes. The commercial center that was under construction in 2013 now is a buzzing hive of buses and people. The 10 level structure houses stores, a wine bar, coffee shop, a cash exchange, and a new fairly large coop to buy groceries. Wandering through the historic center, I was sad to see a few of my favorite old shops no longer exist in their former homes. I am hoping to discover they merely moved locations as the semester goes on.
Our third day consisted of touring the historically significant sites of the city. We walked the walls, visited two of the well-known oratorios, the Fortessa – a medieval and Renaissance fort, and the Palazzo Ducale. Sadly, the duomo is closed for some restoration work. In San Giovanni I knelt down to photograph the iron work on the bottom of the alter. As I zoomed in on the center star, I noticed a pair of hands. I quietly moved closer to the alter to see if my eyes played tricks on me. I indeed discovered a carefully displayed body that I never saw three years ago. I am not sure if I was too awed by the amazing frescoes in the oratorio or just overwhelmed by being in Italy in general back in 2013. However, this early founding brother peacefully slumbers within the ornate alter for several centuries now. I was also able to rephotograph the beautiful Venetian glass chandelier my old camera so nicely refused to capture in all of its glory hanging from the decorated ceiling of the Oratorio di San Guiseppe.
Well, Somnus is lulling me to sleep with the hour being late. Stand by for future posts as I venture through Italy once again.
Sogni d’oro to all of you!
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.
So I am supposed to be a good student and be writing two papers at the moment, but just can’t get in the mood to do so. My mind keeps drifting and dreaming of adventures as I reflect on the past few days. I am sitting on the patio of the Somerville Hotel, sipping a cool cider, and looking out over St. Aubin’s Bay in Jersey. Tonight delivered another amazing sunset; even without the sun, the bay is still fairly bright and definitely active this Sunday night. The past three days flew by much faster than I anticipated they could, and I will be sad to leave this wonderful island tomorrow afternoon. I initially came here to see Mont Orgueil and research its evolution over time. I will be incorporating the castle into my larger project on the evolution of castles in the British Isles. Anyway, a girl can’t be solely about work without any play, so I decided to make this trip a mix of work and pleasure. I was definitely hitting that burnt out; I am tired point during the summer semester and needed a break. Jersey didn’t disappoint in providing exactly what I needed to recharge and get inspired again. I rode the bus around the island, explored its shores and hills, shopped in St. Heliers, and enjoyed what the place has to offer. Maybe I am just lucky, but the weather has been gorgeous my entire stay; making the water bluer and the place magical.
My first day on the island was about serious academic endeavors. I dropped the luggage off at the hotel, caught the next bus to Liberation Station, purchased a 3-day bus pass, and headed straight to Mont Orguiel. This 13th century marvel captured my academic side and the writer in me immediately. Part of me is still seriously thinking I need to set my next novel here. (You know me and knights in shinning armor with swords. I could easily envision mighty sea battles in the Channel/bay being viewed from the watchtowers by anxious castle residents.) I digress; let me get back on task. As you’ve probably already guessed, from the tops of the walls and gatehouse, one is treated to spectacular coastal views of turquoise water contrasting against dark brown rocky shores. The castle has a great story spanning from 1204 until today. One could see how the stronghold defended the Jersey shores from foreign invasion. Jersey has Norman heritage and belonged to the Normans prior to formally becoming part of the British Isles. Sadly, Jersey had to decide whether to stick with their Norman linage and side with King John or side with the French mainland after John lost his French territories to Philip, the King of France. Per the castle video created by the Jersey Heritage organization, the island chose to award its loyalty to King John and England. Per other sources, the king only surrendered his rights to Normandy and always retained a claim to the islands without input from the people of Jersey. I will let you decide what actually happened. Either way, Jersey became a crown territory with rights to self-government.
When it comes to cuisine, this little island packs quite a punch. There is not a single type of cuisine I could not find here. I ate local dishes, Thai, Italian, English, North African and French fare. Yes, I am counting breakfast and snacks in there. I am not that much of a glutton. My all-time favorite restaurant is Danny’s in St. Aubin’s. It is a come as you are and enjoy some flavorful dishes place. The menu offers everything from tapas to very filling main courses. One night I had baked Jersey lobster with royals (Jersey potatoes) and a salad. The next night I had lamb rump in a yummy Moroccan Tagine sauce with date couscous and a starter of artichokes and figs. I would recommend either meal to anyone. If you fall in love with the dishes and want to attempt to recreate Danny’s masterpieces at home, they sell a cookbook for 5 pounds.
The locals are warm and welcoming. On the bus and in my wanderings, I had the opportunity to converse with a large number of folks. All were friendly and quick to share island history, offer recommendations for sites to visit along with places to eat, share their stories, and talk about the weather. At the historical sites, Durrell, and in specialty stores, employees quickly answered questions and educated customers on the location and the products or work being done on site. On a lighter note, Hollywood and Chuck Norris are keeping the stereotype of us Texans alive and well here on the island. One individual I met declared I couldn’t be a Texan as I didn’t have any boots or a cowboy hat. After watching Walker Texas Ranger, he passionately believes that no good Texan is without either item. I had to tell him I left the boots and hat at home. Thank you Hollywood and Chuck Norris for continuing the age-old image of Americans as cowboys overseas. I may have to add Jersey to my fall case studies in American branding: what we think we export versus what others actually perceive us to be. In defense of the locals, I suspect the individual was well into his cups, but he wasn’t the only one to ask me about a hat or rodeos.
This post is getting long, my cider is almost gone, and I have more thoughts to get together on Jersey. Long story short, Jersey is fabulous! If you have room in your travel itinerary or are looking for a unique place to visit, Jersey certainly fits the bill. You will have no regrets in deciding to come here. I will highlight a few of the sites in future posts to further peak your interest.
Summer 2015 will be an exciting one! I find myself fortunate enough to experience a second extended trip abroad. This time I am spending a few weeks in the UK to learn some English, Welsh, and Scottish history. I even have a planned stop in Jersey. For those of you that are scratching your head reading Jersey, it is an island in the English Channel, not the state on the eastern coast of the US. While I am here, I will be researching the evolution of castles and their role over time. This is a change from my initial research topic of Roman Britain. It made more sense to study castles versus a Roman topic with the sites included on my summer program’s itinerary. Castles take me into a field that I do not have a great deal of current knowledge in to expand my skills as a historian. However, I will post Roman pics and updates as I explore places of Roman heritage. After all, you can’t take the Classics out of a girl who loves ancient history.
My sightseeing kicked off yesterday in Canterbury and Broome Park. One can’t help, but fall in love with the city that Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed too. Sadly, I have not been inside the famous cathedral yet. However, I have walked a good part of the city’s historic section enjoying the architecture and indulging in pub cuisine. I will write more as time permits and my journey progresses. In the meantime, here are some pics for you to enjoy!