The Business of Religion

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“Skip the line, skip the line” come the shouts from up and down the sidewalk. It’s about 80° out, the sun shining brightly down on the seemingly endless stream of people in front of me, and the €33 prices being quoted to get into the Musei Vaticani – the Vatican Museums – are sounding better by the minute. I’ve been standing here, waiting, for over an hour now. I’ve shuffled forward maybe 30 feet. According to a loud-voiced fellow American somewhere behind me in the line who ran to check how far it extends around the corner, we have a solid three hours left, at least.

After staving off water sellers (Cold! One euro! One euro!), umbrella sellers (Block the sun!), rosary sellers (well, it is the Vatican, after all), and the ubiquitous “skip the line” tour guides for nearly an hour, my willpower is wavering. It is possible to buy tickets in advance, but I frugally refused to pay four extra euros on top of the already steep sixteen euro price to enter the Vatican Museums, which include the famed Sistine Chapel. Now, I’m questioning that decision. The last entrances are early, around 12:30, and the museums close completely by 4 pm. I check the time on my cell phone: 10:13. By the time I get through this line, I may as well not have bothered.

With a fortuitously timed sales pitch made to the two Scottish ladies immediately behind me, I change my mind about the extra cost. I picked a lucky place – the middle-aged, hat wearing women are just gullible enough to try and politely talk to the tour sellers each and every time one passes them, allowing me to hear all of the options available without getting sucked into a sale. For whatever reason, this particular man in his mid-20s, guide badge around his neck, says his company will sell an entrance – no tour, but just a group to skip to the front of the line with – for €27, €6 less than any other guide I’d heard yet. Then, the American from LA and her boyfriend get in on the deal. They ask about a student price: €20, comes the answer. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have their student IDs on them. Fortunately for me, I do. €20 not being any more than the original online ticket price, I acquiesce, turning around to get in on the conversation myself. A few minutes later, I’m traipsing past person after person, turn the corner, and realize that I hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way through the line.

Later that afternoon, sun still brightly shining overhead, I’m waiting in line once more, this time to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. There’s no entrance fee, just a line of metal detectors that have to be passed before one can enter, so the line moves quickly, even from all the way across St. Peter’s Square. I pass through the massive doors, rendered speechless by the sheer wealth of what I’m seeing around me. Everything in sight is covered in either gold or detailed murals, sculptures line the walls, and even the ceiling, rising over 400 feet, is intricately ornamented. Ahead, at one of the few simple wooden altars scattered throughout the Basilica, I see a woman kneeling in prayer, hands together, head bowed. I wonder how anybody could pray in here. This place that was built to be a church no longer feels like it, with it’s explanatory signs, roped off areas, metal detectors, guards, and suffocating crowds. Then I see her friend in front of her, camera in hand, getting ready to shoot; she isn’t praying, it’s simply a photo op. Walking in a daze, I find my way around the tour groups of visiting nuns to the stairs leading down to the Vatican Grotto, the final resting place of many Popes, and according to the Church, of St. Peter himself. The area immediately above his tomb is now lavishly decorated, and barred from public entrance. The rest of the floor contains sarcophagi of various Popes from throughout history, and even the occasional non-Papal authority, such as Queen Cristina of Sweden.

Walking through, in awe of the history of the people laying around me, I’m brought back into the real world when I climb back up the stairs, through the exit, and find myself face to face with a souvenir shop. Without having done any research to back this up, I’m thoroughly convinced that at least half of the businesses in Vatican City must be souvenir shops. At least. Every church or museum I’ve walked through so far ends in such a place, and in the case of the Vatican Museums, they don’t even wait until the end. They’re just scattered throughout the labyrinth of exhibits, displaying their shockingly expensive rosaries in glass cases alongside bookmarks adorned with pictures of the pope and thin pocket-sized notebooks stamped with the “Musei Vaticani” logo for €9 apiece.

In the Vatican, it’s hard to tell where the church ends, and the business begins. Because that’s what it feels like: a business. And a good one at that. In peak season, an average of 20,000 people make their way through the museums and connected Sistine Chapel each day. For the only remaining Papal state, Vatican City hardly feels more like a religious site to me than any of the other local attractions I’ve visited. The Pope might live there, but unless he’s out on the balcony giving an address, everywhere you turn it’s the same ticket booths and audio guides that you find at the Colosseum. The streets leading up to St. Peter’s Square are lined with places advertising €6 pizza and coke or 50¢ postcards. The only thing that makes the Vatican feel any different than the sprawling, slightly dirty city of Rome itself is the undeniable wealth. It’s everywhere, in all the buildings, in the towering marble pillars, topped with their numerous statues. It’s in the glimmering crosses, and the valuable artwork. It makes me wonder when it will be enough.

 

Firenze

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Oh, Florence, city of art. I’d heard an awful lot about Florence before getting here, so my expectations were high. And, I have to say, for the most part, the city didn’t disappoint, although once again, I think I failed to do the things that I was “supposed” to do. I did not, for instance, go to see Michelangelo’s “David” (though I did view a replica outside of the Piazza della Signora, where the original stood until 1873, and in the end, it probably looked about the same). The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter how famous the statue, I just don’t care enough to wait in line for hours to see it. Shoot me. I did, however, drop in for a look at the Michelangelo-designed Laurentian library at one of the many Medici palaces in Florence, originally commissioned by Pope Clement VII, a Medici himself. Unfortunately, neither saw the library’s completion: Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, the same year that the Pope died. Although construction had already been underway for nearly a decade at that point, the library was still 37 years away from opening. Although most of the library has been emptied of its original literary contents, it was still well worth the €3 entrance fee. Libraries are way better than some naked dude carved in marble, am I right?

Lovely Florence.

Anyways, back on topic. I like Florence: it seems to have found a better balance of tourism and local authenticity than Venice has. Mind you, there’s still an awful lot of tourists running around (myself included, though I pride myself on the fact that I’ve even had Italians ask me for help several times), but it isn’t the same constant, overwhelming flood found in Venice. You can walk 15 minutes away from the Duomo and feel as though you’ve left all tourist influence behind. It probably isn’t true, of course, but it feels like it, and isn’t that what matters?

The Duomo.

The Duomo.

Even at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers beautiful views of Florence from above, and is (or should be) a tourist attraction of sorts, I was able to sit on a bench for a peaceful couple of hours, struggling through a French novel I picked up at an international bookstore, with only one or two minor distractions. Maybe most people are just too lazy for the steep, long-ish uphill walk. I don’t know.

The view from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Even my roommates were nice, quiet sorts. The middle-aged woman in the bed immediately next to mine talked to herself rather a lot, but she also shared her biscotti with me, so she can’t have been too bad. We chatted a couple of times during my stay; I talked to her in English, and I think she understood a bit. She talked to me in Spanish, and I understood “hola.” Nonetheless, we made it work, somehow managing to communicate well for a good 45 minutes before giving up the effort, during which time I found out that she was from Brazil, and her “Spanish” was actually Portuguese. Ah, well. A linguist I am not. Conversations like these are one of the great joys of traveling alone.

Tomorrow morning, I depart Florence for Rome. I’m excited to get to the “cradle of civilization” and all that jazz, but I wouldn’t complain about another day or two here, just relaxing, either. I have a nagging feeling Rome won’t be relaxing in the slightest, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it regardless. And, best of all, I’ll be there for five nights, which for me basically means I won’t have to lug my bags around a train station or try to find a hostel in a new city for five. whole. nights. Oh, happy day.

Until next time!

The Learned, The Fat, and The Red

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If there’s one thing I’ve regretted this trip, it’s not spending more time in Bologna. At first, I did’t intend to come here at all. Then, I saw a few sources strongly recommending a stop, so I stuck in a measly two nights for this small town with seemingly few attractions. Almost immediately after setting foot outside of Bologna Centrale, however, I would gladly have traded one of my nights in Milan, or in Venice, or both, for more time in the city of “the learned, the fat, and the red,” as it is known.

I couldn’t even tell you why. I didn’t do or see anything in particular on my one full day here. After being welcomed like a member of the family at my hostel guesthouse last night, and given the rundown of life in town, I wandered a bit, got lost, found myself again, and chatted with some other travelers in the dorms. I didn’t keep them for too long, though – the football game was on, after all.

Then today, I pretty much just walked some more, beginning my day by popping over to the “due torri,” two towers. Predating Tolkien’s two towers by about eight centuries, these leaning monuments are all that remain of the estimated 180 towers that once rose over Bologna. They are the most famous monuments in the city today, and you can even climb one, should you so choose. I abstained, personally. Local legend says that if a student climbs to the top, they will never graduate, and really, is it worth the risk? Also, it was a lot of steps.

After wandering around in the two towers area, I scoped out San Petronio, another local attraction and one of the largest basilicas in the world – I’m starting to think this country has as many churches as it does people – but mostly I just let my feet take me down the most interesting looking alleyways and cobblestone corridors, finding the best pizza I’ve had in Italy yet and a local weekend market along the way.

After the general over-the-top-ness of just about everything in Venice, the relaxed vibe of Bologna (and the relative lack of tourists) really hit the spot.Tomorrow I take the train to Florence, Firenze as it’s called here, and though I’m excited to see the city which many cite as their favorite in Italy, I’ll be sad to be leaving Bologna and it’s strangely homey atmosphere so soon. If there’s one place I would return to in Italy, it is without a doubt here.

A City of Canals

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Okay, I’ll admit it. I had no intentions of liking Venice. It screamed touristy from a thousand miles off. And it is. It’s a city where, during the high season, tourists outnumber locals. With it’s cheesy, overpriced souvenirs and multilingual signage, it’s something that I really want to hate, and yet in spite of everything, it’s retained enough of that original charm to draw me in. Despite my reservations, I do understand the allure of Venice, with its seafoam green canals, towering medieval palazzi, and extravagant opera houses. In the end, I think there’s just a bit too much of a show being put on for the foreigners for me to unreservedly fall in love with the city the way some people have, but I can, without a doubt, understand their feelings.

Day one, I didn’t even attempt to avoid the haven of all things touristy, Piazza San Marco. Instead, I went straight for it, wandering around inside of the imposingly rich cathedral, followed up by the no less impressive Palazzo Ducale. The palace’s origins are in the 9th century, but the building standing today only (hah, only) dates back to the 14th century. I could have spent all day laying on the floor of what is one of the largest rooms in Europe, according to a passing tour guide. Laying on the floor, I say, because the most detailed, intricate paintings weren’t located on the walls, but on the ceiling. Going down the stairs and across the bridge of sighs, so named for the sighs of prisoners crossing the dark passageway and sighing at the final sight of the lagoon through the tiny window, the prisons stand in stark contrast to the opulence of the palace just next door. Walking through the poorly lit corridors, past row after row of cells, and climbing up into the armory with it’s racks of medieval weaponry, gives a brief glimpse into the darker side of Venice’s history.

Day two, I took a different tack, wandering through all the back alleys and little nooks and crannies in the city that I could find, accompanied by a new friend, but despite all of our efforts to get out of the “tourist area,” it would seem that the entire city is actually a tourist area. Our attempts were in vain, and every time we stepped out of a shadowy alley, we would find ourselves surrounded by masses of other non-Venetians trying to push their way to the nearest attraction. All hope of escaping the crowds left behind, we retired to a café to chat about the joys and frustrations of long-term travel over overpriced gelato. My final day in Venice was passed in much the same manner, wandering aimlessly through the streets, pausing to look through the occasional museum or church as I came across them, and eventually, being invited by my waiter to go get drinks after his shift ended. Unfortunately, his interest in me didn’t extend so far as to get me a discount on my lunch. Oh well.

 

Now that I’ve gotten through Venice, I’ll start my descent southward, starting with Bologna tomorrow morning.

Ciao!

On the Move

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Whew! I know that the journey is better than the destination and all that, but I’ve got to say, travel days are my least favorite, especially alone. Trying to make room for two heavy backpacks on an assortment of subways, trains, and buses, whilst simultaneously attempting to navigate my way through a city I’ve never been in to a place I’ve never seen is just not my idea of a good time. But, as always, I made it through, and so here I am at a campsite on the outskirts of Venice, planning out how my next few days are going to look (and yes, campsite — in Europe I’ll take what I can get). I’ll have the same amount of time here as I did in Milan – four nights  - but I have so much more to see. Hopefully the 30 minute bus ride from here to the city center will keep me from coming back during the day and taking my standard mid-afternoon siesta, and wasting precious hours (and euros!). I guess I’ll find out soon enough! On the itinerary tomorrow: the Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and some other stuff that I’ll know when I see it.

The Lakes

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Como is peace personified, at least after the busy city life in Milan. I am writing this on the shore of the lake, surrounded by buildings in shades of orange and yellow dotting the forested mountains that rise up in the background. Sailboats float by, bikers travel down the street in packs, families stroll through the park, and for the first time in months, I’m listening to church bells ringing in the distance instead of the call to prayer. I’m glad I made the decision to come here. I won’t be doing much today – no sightseeing, for instance – but the more I travel, the more I realize that’s okay. Today isn’t a day for taking pictures of old buildings. Today is a day for laying by the lake with a good book, finding some tasty Italian food, and making peace with the fact that I am no longer in Morocco. And, once I’m back to a laptop that I can put my photos on, I’ll upload some pictures and show you all what I mean. :)

Ciao for now!

Day Two

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As predicted, new light brought new confidence. I finished off last night by bonding with my Zurich-born roommate, who shares my fascination with Arab culture. We stayed up late swapping stories of her experiences working in Egypt and mine studying in Morocco, and sharing all of our future travel plans. 

As she headed back into Switzerland this morning, I turned my feet towards the Duomo di Milano, an impressive marble cathedral dating back to the 14th century. It’s construction dragged on until the mid-20th century, but today, the site is unfortunately marred by the tourist insanity surrounding it. The nearby Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II brings in throngs of shoppers, and of course peddlers and street performers come along for the ride, till you end up with a beautiful building and lines so long and crowds so large that the stunning architecture can’t be enjoyed. 

Instantly disliking the touristy aspect – I even had salesmen calling out to me in English, the only place in the city that I hadn’t been spoken to in Italian – I only stayed and watched the circus for a few minutes before walking down the far calmer Via Alessandro Manzoni in search of the Museo Poldi-Pezzoli. The Pezzolis were (are?) one of the wealthiest families in Milan’s aristocracy, and their historic home has now been transformed into a museum housing the city’s most important private art collection. I’m not much of an art connoisseur, but the paintings and sculptures dating back as far as the 14th century (and a few items even earlier) by masters such as Boticelli, Bellini, Tiepolo, Guardi, and others, were stunning. The museum was quiet, with only a few other patrons, by my estimation all aged over 65 (I guess the Milanese youth are more concerned with high fashion than art history), so I took my time, spending hours meandering my way through the historically inspired rooms, whose decor and architecture dates back to the 19th century and Gian Giacomo Pezzoli himself.

After a bite to eat, and another brief grocery trip to get some goods for dinner tonight (cause who can afford to eat out in Europe all the time?), I got totally turned around in the metro, but with some educated guesswork, made it back to the Stazione Centrale on my first try. I even managed to look confident enough to get asked for directions by a new immigrant to Milan. Ha! I was then kept company on most of the ride by an overly friendly Pakistani fellow telling me all about how there are easily spotted American spies everywhere in Pakistan. You meet the most interesting people on the subway.

Having decided to spend a day outside of Milan, I hopped off to check the train ticket situation, eventually opting to stay in Italy and visit Como, instead of traveling into Switzerland and up to Lugano for the day. Given their close proximity to each other and the fact that the train tickets to Lugano were nearly €40 more expensive, a trip into Switzerland just couldn’t be justified. 

So, tomorrow then, Lago di Como!

Adjustments, Part II

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It’s been an odd day. At 4:00 this morning I got up, said goodbye to my one remaining international friend in Morocco, and caught a train to the Casablanca airport. Several hours later, I was on the ground in Milan. The rest of the day was spent finding my hostel, napping, eating a delicious dinner (I was weird and ate my first meal in Italy at an Asian fusion restaurant, a five month craving that needed to be satisfied) and making the mandatory stop at the local CarreFour to pick up some cheap munchies for breakfast. All seems fairly normal, right? No. 

As I sat on the hour long bus ride from the airport, I saw a few small, older red cars out the window. Other than the lack of taxi signage, they looked exactly like the red color-coded petit taxis in Fez and Casablanca, and my mind immediately jumped to what I would be doing if I were there. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so uncomfortable at a restaurant. The food was amazing, and the wait staff were attentive. They actually waited on the table. After months of being virtually ignored at restaurants, it seemed smothering, and I felt watched in a way I never did in Morocco. In the train station, walking down the streets, and in stores, I get spoken to in Italian. The locals don’t know offhand that I’m a foreigner. Although it is a pleasant change not to turn heads everywhere I go, and although I haven’t had any communication troubles yet (thank you Mom for the Italian phrasebook that I’ve been studying like a maniac!), it’s stressful in a whole new way. Words keep coming out of my mouth in French, and I want to tell people “shukran” instead of “grazie.” 

However, I think back to other times I’ve traveled alone, and the first night is always the hardest. Tomorrow I’m going out to really explore Milan for the first time, and perhaps on a fresh day, things will feel more comfortable.

Ciao!

Ma’a Salama, Morocco

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As I write this post, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Casablanca, taking a breather for the first time in almost five months, and preparing to fly out of Morocco for the last time on Friday. It’s hard to imagine that barely more than 24 hours ago, I was still on campus in Ifrane, trying to study for my last two finals whilst simultaneously finish packing six months of my life into two backpacks and complete the checkout procedures for AUI. What’s harder to imagine is that 48 hours from now I’ll be in Milan, getting ready to start my month-long trek across Italy and Greece. I don’t think it’s hit me yet that I’m leaving for good. When I had to say goodbye to everyone on campus, it felt almost like it did leaving for Spring Break, like somehow we’d all be back again for classes after the vacation. Except we won’t be. When I had to say goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve made all semester as he left for the airport this morning, it became a little more real. But like when I went to Barcelona, I don’t think it’ll really hit me that I’m gone from Morocco until the plane touches down in Europe and I return to the world of grocery stores and dogs on leashes. 

I can’t think of a way to verbalize or quantify my experiences here. I can (and have) written about many of the highlights on this blog, but the places I went and the people I met only scratched the surface. It doesn’t begin to cover the lessons I’ve learned here, the adaptations I’ve had to make, and the realizations that I’ve come to about who I am and who I want to be. It can never truly communicate what it’s like having to jump out of the way as a donkey barrels through the winding streets of the medina, or how it felt to sleep on top of a Saharan sand dune. 

I loved my time in Morocco. It wasn’t always easy, and there are many small luxuries that I miss from my life in the U.S. (toilet paper in bathrooms, anyone?), but in the end I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m sad to be leaving Morocco, and most especially, to be leaving all of the friends I’ve made here, but nevertheless, I’m excited for the next adventure. Italy, here I come!

And, for the last time,

Ma’a Salama from Morocco

One Month.

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One month from today I will be sitting in an airport in Casablanca, waiting to leave Morocco for the last time for the foreseeable future. I don’t know exactly how I feel about that. Although I’ve certainly had my moments of homesickness, I’ve also come to see this place as my home, as one of the multiple cultures in the world that I am lucky enough to feel comfortable living in. There have been plenty of struggles and hardships this semester, which were more than outbalanced by the wonderful friends made, experiences had, and lessons learned.

I’ve been spending all semester trying to avoid writing one of those cheesy “I’ve been transformed by my time abroad” posts, but this might be as close as I come, because although in many ways I am exactly the same person who left Texas in January, in some ways I’m very different as well. Mostly, I’ve become more sure of myself, more stable in unstable situations. In some ways, I’ve gained confidence in what I want my future to look like; I’ve also been forced to ask a lot of questions about that vision. We’ve been raised to think that America does things the “right way,” whatever that means, but the more time I spend overseas, the more I question the validity of that statement. I won’t totally bash America; I think we do some things fantastically. I think we also have a lot to learn from others, even the developing countries of the world which we tend to view as less-than. I think that is perhaps our greatest weaknesses.

As I’ve been reflecting on my time spent here, I can’t help but feel more than ever that traveling is one of the most important things that we can do. I’ve been told it’s luxurious, an unnecessary indulgence, and sure, if you’re laying on a lounge chair at a 5-star beach resort that’s as culturally similar to America as you could get outside of the country itself, then maybe that’s true. If, however, you immerse yourself into the culture, talk – and more importantly, listen – to the locals, at least temporarily make an effort to live a different way of life, then it is far more than a simple luxury. It is learning. It is growth. It is empathy.

Humans have a tendency to fear the “other,” and the more I travel, the more people I meet, the more I realize that there is no such thing. Our cultures and our families have shaped us all into distinct individuals, but at the end of the day, we’re all human. Most of the cultural differences I’ve stumbled across in my travels, not only in Morocco but across the globe, go no deeper than surface-level. If everybody could be brought to see and understand this concept, that is the way to peace. That is the only way. Until we can all look at someone from a nation 5,000 km away from the place we call home and see someone who is, at the core, just like us, the problems will not end.

Yes, this is a very idealistic perspective, and yes, I do realize that. Aside from the existence of people who simply aren’t interested in building these bridges, travel is unfortunately cripplingly expensive a lot of the time. Even so, every student who gets a scholarship to spend some time at an overseas university, every 20-something who quits her job to backpack Asia, every person who makes an effort to get out and see the world is then able to impact everyone around them. It’s a ripple effect. So yes, it’s idealistic. But shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars, right?