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Archive for May, 2011

Buen Camino

Puente la Reina, Spain

I write from Puente la Reina, my fourth stop on the Camino de Santiago, a 30-day medieval pilgrimage route that goes from St. Jean Pied de Port, in France, to Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest corner of Spain.

It´s amazing how easy it has been to slip into a new way of life here. In Spain, I wake up at 5.45 and leave the Alburgue (hostel) by 6.30. A few hours later, if possible, I stop in a small village for a snack. I lunch on the road at noon – today, at a mysterious hexagonal cathedral surrounded by wheat fields. It´s mysterious because no one knows exactly who built it or why – perhaps, it is thought to be a 12th century structure modelled on Jerusalem´s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But it may also be the cathedral where medieval pilgrims were buried when they died on the camino.

It´s not just me that´s taking on this new way of life. There are people here as young as 20 and as old as 70 – I have met folks from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as Hungary, Holland, Korea, Japan, and of course the Americas. Everyone is here for a different reason and the common language is, as in so many other places, broken english.

But it´s fun to be on such a strange adventure with so many different people. Fun to feel united, too, not just with this group of walkers but also with those who travelled centuries ago, by donkey or on foot, to pay penitence or ask for favors or seek god or, a la Chaucer, because it was the thing to do.

Next week, I hope to return with some of the stories that I have heard along the way. Until then, Buen Camino!

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Botticelli's "Spring"*

Anyone who has read the canterbury tales (and who hasn’t read the canterbury tales!) knows that spring is the time for pilgrimages. After the April rains have washed away the droughts of March, “Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,” as Chaucer says in his infamous prologue. (“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” for those who care).

It’s been true at least since the middle ages and I think, to some degree, it’s true today. In the spring and into the summer, Rome and Florence (where I am now) come alive with modern pilgrims – folks who have traveled half-way across the world to pay their respect to  their own sacred places. Some come to see the Vatican: walking through the long halls of the museum was like being pushed along by a tsunami of tourists. Some come to see the churches, from St. Peter’s and the Duomo in Florence to the hundreds of less well known, but similarly stunning buildings across Italy. But today, I think, most people come to see the art.

It really is amazing how full of art these cities are. Michelangelo and Rafael, Brunelleschi and Botticelli, Titian and Giotto and so many more than I can name. There is something holy about seeing these objects that I have read about and dreamed of and heard described in literature and film. And there is something about spring – about the unfolding beauty outside – that gives these beautiful works of art particular force.  Chaucer describes it as the world and the spirit coming alive together in spring and I do feel like everything has been coming alive this week, both inside and out.

At the Uffizi Gallery on Saturday we spent a lot of time looking at the painting Primavera (spring) by Botticelli. (See above.) It depicts a version of spring that is full of romance and adventure: a blindfolded cupid, a seductive zephyrus, and the goddess Flora with vines literally pouring out of her mouth. Venus, standing in the middle, looks just like the Virgin Mary and it’s tempting to worship at the foot of this painting like you might say a prayer in a church. Some people go on pilgrimage to honor a particular saint or god. I like the idea of going on a springtime pilgrimage merely in order to honor the spring.

Of course, soon I’ll be starting a pilgrimage of an entirely different sort –  but more on that next week.

Weather: well it’s just about midnight here, but today was hot and sunny: close to 90s at its height.

Mood: 6 out of 10. Exhausted.

Anna – 7 out of 10.

*photo from wikicommons.

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Basilica Julia

Really Old Stuff in Rome

I’ve been thinking a lot about time these past few days.

I’ve had good reason. In the past week I have walked on stones that have been in place for thousands of years. I entered temples dedicated to pagan gods and I wandered through the ruins of palaces intended for emperors. I’ve even participated in rituals from another time or place. A few days ago I threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, build in the 1700s but inspired by Greek mythology. According to the story, it depicts Pegasus striking the rock that brought forth the fountain of the muses, from which water all poetic inspiration springs. And then yesterday, at the church of St. Peter, I was blessed with the holy water of the pope.

My brother, who spent the semester in Rome studying art history and classics, knows all of these stories. He has an intimate relationship with all of the Roman emperors (his favorite is Aurelius). He has a Roman god of preference (Sol Invictus) and he knows how to distinguish between Paul III and Pius XI, between Mark Antony and Marcus Aurelius. When he walks around the city, every single spot tells a story.

Because Rome is all new to me, I have a very different experience of time and space.  I don’t know this city’s stories yet, and so for the most part I am forced to make my own. My stories tend to be more based in the present: this is the giant column near where we got great pannacotta. This is the amazing church with the water fountain that sprayed me in the face. This is a giant head. (that’s all I’ve got for the giant head).

I love it when my brother tells me the “real” stories about popes and emperors. But for me, it’s the stories I create that bring the city to life.

Weather:
Warm and sunny. They say it will be in the 70’s today.

Mood:
Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Still a little sleepy today.
Anna: Wrong side of the Atlantic.  Still sleeping! [EDIT: Anna is now awake and working. Mood=5 because it won’t stop raining!]

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The canal is slashed with colorful pops of color — canoes and kayaks ready to be taken out onto the Charles. Since the opening of the season, they’ve been bobbing in the water, waiting for adventure-seeking tourists and groups of corporate team builders. I look down on them from my office, but so far, most of the paddling has been done by ducks that laze about on the water. I’ve been waiting for the kayakers, but they haven’t come.

I think of May as a warm month: short sleeves and light sweaters. But the past few weeks I’ve been wearing layers under my wool coat. From my office perch the sunlight, leafy trees, and people on their daily walks all make it seem warmer than it is. Then I step outside, am hit by a gust of wind, and wish I hadn’t been tricked by the light.

My new threshold for the start of summer? When people brave the no-longer-dirty-water of the Charles River and start launching regularly from the small dock down below.

Weather: Sunny. 59 degrees.

Moods:

Anna – 6.5 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Somehow it doesn’t really feel like Friday.

Hannah – She’s having an adventure, so I hope she’s a 10 and celebrating Food Friday with a bowl of beautifully crafted pasta.

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My decision making process: as represented by an engraving by Giovanni Battista Scultori, Italian, 1538.*

“You know, Hannah,” my friend David said to me once, “this may just be part of who you are.” David was referring to my tendency to fall into complete turmoil every time I am confronted with a major decision. I had just moved to my Somerville apartment after weeks of agonizing (Concord or Somerville? Central Square or Porter?) and I was disappointed that the decision had been so hard to make. I wanted my decisions to fall into numerical place, as if it really was just a matter of weighing pros and cons. Some people are capable of that. But, as David pointed out, it’s just not how my mind works.

My flight to Italy departs tomorrow night and this past week has been a plague of decision-making. There are tickets to buy, rooms to reserve, itineraries to arrange and re-arrange. Since I haven’t been working (I left Idea Platforms a week ago!), I have been faced with plenty of time to make the necessary arrangements. For better or worse. The truth is, I’ve been feeling a little bit crazy.

I’ve tried to keep David’s words in mind as I prepare to leave. My decision making process is ugly, but torturing myself over it just makes it worse. I’ve been trying, instead, to accept the chaos as part of the process. And to remember that as difficult as it seems now, it’s going to be worth it just as soon as I step on the plane. After all, the next time I post, I will be in Rome!

Weather: Chilly. Fifties and cloudy with a chance of rain.

Moods:
Hannah: 7 out of 1o on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Actually I’m feeling a little too overwhelmed to quantify.
Anna: 6.5.

*art from the met!

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Somehow the month of April raced by, leaving me little time to do anything that wasn’t pre-scheduled in my Google calendar, and with it went my ability to blog. The month marked several transitions. First, I celebrated the two year anniversary of my move to the city. Then, my stellar co-blogger and now former co-worker, Hannah, departed for her grand adventure. (I’ll miss seeing her every day!) And finally, the day after we waved goodbye to Hannah, my company, Idea Platforms, moved from the suburban wilderness that is Concord, MA to the bustling tech haven of Kendall Square in Cambridge.

The move is a very welcome change—I have more flexibility, more time, and far fewer sprints to the T. But it’s still a major adjustment. Two years ago, when I started commuting to Concord from the city, I had my doubts about the town. I groaned about the dearth of young people, and the turgid, blue blood stuffiness I assumed I’d encounter. Instead, I grew to love the community, especially after I joined The Coffee Group—a rather random assembly of exceptional individuals who quickly became part of my daily routine.

When I first began commuting daily, I got off the train in Concord and rushed past a small French café called La Provence. Each morning while briefly glancing in through the oversize windows, I spotted a very dapper old gentleman waving to me. I waved back. A simple gesture of welcome from a man who looked to be from a different place, another era.

He was. His name was Maurice and even at 89, he still had a spark in his eye, hence the daily wave. Maurice held court at La Provence. His throne was a brightly-colored leather chair that occupied the corner where the orange wall met the window’s glass, and around his perch, a rotating group would gather each morning. Eventually, the temptation became too great and I started buying my morning coffee there. He’d wave as I left. I would wave back. And then one day, when there was a small cluster of four gathered around the table, I was invited to join.

The men and women of The Coffee Group range in age from forty-ish to eighty-ish, travel the world, and have all ended up in the idyllic locale of Concord. They are journalists, physicists, naturalists, and rodeo riders. They come from Greece, Spain, and across the United States. And although some are three times my age, they are more vibrant and more inquisitive than many twenty-somethings.

For the past year and a half, I’ve started my day with these men and women, and a large cup of coffee. When Maurice passed away last spring, we kept his chair open for several days to celebrate his life. I learned that he was an artist, and that over the course of his career he had focused on blue chips, then blue stones, then blue fins as a stockbroker, jeweler, and restaurateur. And then one day, no doubt when there were nearly twenty of us crowding in the corner, someone sat down in Maurice’s chair so we would have room for everyone.

This is what is hardest to leave behind. In a small town where I doubted I’d find friends, I made more than twenty. Concord isn’t my hometown, but Adele’s song “Hometown Glory” sums up my feelings beautifully:

Weather: Sunny and warm.

Moods:

Anna – 8 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Actually went to the gym before work, and happily nostalgic.

Hannah – 8 out of 10. Almost packed! Also, it’s sunny. [Edit: I mistakenly typed “6” before. That is a lie. Hannah is very happy this afternoon.]

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The Emotional Calendar is not the only book to recommend tracking moods as a way of better understanding your life and improving your well meaning.

And now, Anna and my home town is tracking moods as well. Today the New York Times reports:

When they filled out the city’s census forms this spring, the people of Somerville got a new question. On a scale of 1 to 10, they were asked, “How happy do you feel right now?”

Sounds familiar! The city plans to use the data to determine whether happiness increases with improved public transport and green spaces. But as Anna and I can vouch for, 1-10 mood ratings are highly variable and depend on all sorts of factors.

“I’m glad they’re trying to use 21st-century tools to get a feel for what people want,” said Conor Brennan, the owner of P J Ryan’s, a pub in Teele Square. “Of course, any survey like this is going to depend on the mood of the person at that moment. If they filled it out in the middle of this last winter, that’s probably going to lower the score.”

Ah, winter. If only city planning officials could do something about that.

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