Saturday, May 20, 2006

March 8 is International Women’s Day. This day of celebration began in 1910 to demonstrate unhealthy working conditions for women and the IWD demonstrations in 1917 were some of the first of the Russian revolution. The day has traditionally been a time to show respect for women employees, but has now become a day like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day to buy flowers or little gifts for the women in ones life. The main square of Nova Gorica is planted with vendors selling flowers and plants and men are seen carrying bouquets all over town. I think the US should honor this day as well. Women really do need to be reminded that all the little things they do [scrubbing bathrooms, changing beds, sweeping, cooking special meals, hugging crying children] are greatly appreciated. I wonder if there is also an International Man’s Day?

The gymnasia graduating students celebrate the end of their public schooling with the matura dance [the matura is their exit exam]. Fourth year students and their families attend a dinner in the sports complex decorated with balloons, draped fabric, long tables with table cloths, candles, flowers and runners to match the napkins. Food is served in courses from buffet tables around the room through out the night. A live band plays music for dancing beginning at 8:00pm until 4:00am and people really know how to dance. Couples glide across the floor in a style with an ease that only comes with hours of dancing together. Many of the students are almost unrecognizable dressed in floor length gowns and hours of preparation to get their hair to pile so high on their heads, but just as many are looking more comfortable in regular street clothes. The ceremony begins with a grand musical entrance to a Strauss waltz and then the entire class exhibits a fabulous demonstration of dance styles from contra dances though the tango. All the students take dance classes at private ballroom dance studios and practice all year for this moment. It is amazing to watch the students execute the dance steps with precision and joy. Each homeroom also gives a presentation [many power point photos of excursions, projects and kids being silly] and special moments of gratitude to their homeroom teacher [one teacher received a wheelbarrow full of flowers – one plant from each student]. We left at 1:00 and dessert had not been served yet and people were still going strong. The students dance until dawn when the last ones leave at 6:00am. It is especially nice to see the families in attendance. Not only parents are in attendance, but in some cases grandparents and younger siblings are gathered around the table seated with the guest of honor, their graduating student. The students have a national dance day planned on the last day of classes in May. All over Slovenia 4th year students will gather and dance their routines in an attempt to win a Guinness world record and another way to put Slovenia on that map.

Easter celebrations are many and varied. The priest blesses the trimmings from the olive trees on Palm Sunday and they are then carried home to represent the palm branches used to celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. In Ljubljana where they have no olive trees, butar are made from dyed wood shavings and greenery from bushes that all bundled together to make a wand that is blessed at church. People make dyed eggs by hard-boiling them with the skins of onions. Some place flower petals and leaves on the eggs, wrap them in cheesecloth put them with the onionskins in the boiling water and then when the leaves are removed the designs are white on the burgundy colored eggs. Eggs painted in tradition designs are available to buy in wood, but like many of their traditional art forms I am assuming this one is disappearing too. Food is brought to the church on Easter eve to be blessed, bread [the body of Christ], wine [the blood of Christ], horse radish [the nails of the crucifixion] and eggs [shell is the tomb and the yolk is new life]. These are the first foods one is supposed to eat on Easter Sunday. Easter Saturday at Sveta Gora is the major service and is over 2 hours in length including a great deal of incense, a procession around the outside of the church [with Kay sight reading Slovenian hymns while walking around the church on the wet stones in the dark – it probably is not my best singing ever]. I have never seen anyone so excited about the resurrection as Brother Ambrose. He dances from one person to another wishing Velika No^c hugging and kissing, giggling that the resurrection has happened. After this long evening of course the choir gets together for food, wine, traditional Easter foods and lots and lots of laughter.

Our son Aaron visited with us for 5 weeks and his partner Elle for 2. This was Elle’s first visit to Europe so we were able to give her the experience of 3 countries. We all went to Cres, a Croatian island in the Adriatic. The city of Mali Locinj is a popular retreat spot for Slovenians and we headed there for a couple of days. Unfortunately the weather was rainy the entire time so we were only able to do a little bit of hiking, but there are paths all over the island, around the shore and following rock walls. The people who have lived on this island have had to remove an enormous number of rocks to find land to cultivate or to use as pasture for animals. Small plots still protect sheep in some areas, but mostly the land is left to scrub growth and the economy has adapted to the tourists who come to breathe the fresh air scented with pine and salt while walking and sitting in cafes.

We visited Bob’s family in Podlipa and went to the home of Vinko to try the spinning table. He built this wooden table following a 300-year-old tradition that has been passed through the family. The table is a little bigger than a card table standing high on 4 strong legs with a barrel secured under the top. The unfinished tabletop fits into a wooden knob on the top of the barrel and is able to move around in a circle on this knob although not easily because it was wood against wood. Eleven of us gathered around his table, we were told that the table would move clockwise if our palms were flat on the table and counter-clockwise if the backs of our hands were on the table. It took about 20 minutes of standing talking together with our hands on the table before it started to move. It slowly edged clockwise and then picked up speed as we all moved around it with our palms flat on the table, then Vinko told us to change and the table came to a complete stop and with the backs of our hands on the table it started to move the other direction. We went back and forth for a while and then people started to step away from the table leaving just 4 of us [my son Aaron, Elle, a cousin and me] and the table moved faster and faster and faster until we were running to stay with it. None of us was pushing it I am certain, it moved because we all believed that it could and the power of our thought made it happen. The room had a number of doubters and a numbers of would be believers, but when we were finished I thin everyone believed that the human brain and collective thought is a powerful thing.

It is interesting for us to try to imagine how Aaron and Elle are seeing things for the first time; these same sights that we now take for granted. How odd that the water rolling out of the mountain in Vipava, the snow capped peaks of the Julian alps, the turquoise So^ca river, the alpine towns, the coastal medieval villages, the border crossings, Friday night wine at the Italian wine bar and festivals in ancient castles can seem common place to us now that we’ve been here 7 months.

Water coming from the mountain in Ajdov^s^cina,
Medieval festival at Gorizia castle,
Spinning table and Vinko
Butar and decorated eggs for Easter

house interior,
church interior,
cliff apartments,

Friday, May 19, 2006

Interior Castle del Monte,

Castle del Monte

Monte Sant'Angelo

San Giovanni Rotondo

In April the teachers from Solski Center plan an annual bus trip together for 4 days. Last year they went to Berlin, this year we all head to the region of Puglia in the south of Italy. Passing along the calm Adriatic on the route to the spur of the Italian boot are rows and rows of fruit trees drastically pruned like butchered limbs dotted with pale pink soft delicate lace on the deformed branches, and miles and miles and miles of grape arbors and olive groves. This area was thought to be once a part of the Croatian coast and the rock formations, soil and hills that should have been the foothills of the Dalmatian mountains now rest in Italy thanks to plate tectonics. For miles the area appears to be isolated, lost and forgotten protected only by old men chatting on benches dressed in the uniform of shirts, sweaters, jackets, hats and ties. Then out of nowhere a modern city with new apartments and buildings teeters on the rocks. The Commune di San Giovanni Rotondo is expanding due to thousands of pilgrimages who come to the hospital and church dedicated to Padre Pio. Padre Pio bore the stigmata of Christ for 50 years until right before he died in 1968 and was declared venerable by the pope in 1998. The faithful come from all over the world to this harsh land seeking a connection with God though this holy man who suffered the pains of the Savior, and many, many hotels and restaurants have risen to care for the pilgrims while they are here. Pilgrimages are very present in the Catholic faith here. Holy days are celebrated, the saints are remembered and given credit for natural happenings. I too feel the presence of something spiritual when I visit these sights, but more than the presence of a relic I think I feel the deep heart felt searching of those who come seeking.

In Monte Sant’Angelo we visit the hill top city where crusaders trained and received spiritual preparation before sailing from Bari to the holy land. The grotto under the church is believed to be the earthly home of the Archangel Michael and this was the second largest pilgrimage site after Rome during the middle ages. There were strong beliefs that the world would end in 1,000 so believers stopped creating and constructing in their home towns and traveled to holy sites to see the sacred relics before the end times. These pilgrimage roads leading from the British Isles to Italy intersected in France and the first tourist economy sprang up along these journey paths leading to the beautiful monasteries that housed the plunder brought back by the crusaders beginning in 195. One relic we experience on this trip is the house of Mary the mother of Jesus thought to have been brought to Italy by the angels. Actually it is a house made of stone, proven to be from the holy land from the time of Christ, that was brought by the D’Angelo family to preserve it from possession by the Muslims. It now sits within a basilica and is a place of unique smells and the feeling of warmth within the stonewalls.

Around 1,150, when it appeared that the world was not going to come to a fiery end, the faithful began to build churches in their hometowns with a focus on judgment and repentance. Those who had traveled to far exotic places brought back unusual ideas, stories of happenings and images of unusual creatures that can be seen in the designs of the churches and castles in Southern Italy. One such exotic building is the Castel del Monte, built by Frederic II between 1229 & 1249. It is a gigantic octagonal shaped hunting lodge that looms on the hill above the surrounding olive groves. The building is decorated with Eastern designs in doorways and windows carved from red aggregate, marble columns streaked with orange and trimmed with floral extensions, spiral stair cases and an upstairs indoor toilet.

In Bari, in the Basilica di San Nicola, the remains of St. Nicholas [of Christmas fame] are found. Stolen from Myra by Italian sailors in 1087 the remains have held a great fascination due to the continuous extraction of liquid manna from the bones. The presence of holy relics and people who come to worship in these places is fascinating to me. So many of the buildings are built on the Roman ruins of temples and the energy for centuries is one of seeking and believing. I find it difficult to understand the power of holy objects, but I bask in the seeking of things spiritual.

Outside of Bari we visit a producer of olive oil. Il Fratolo D’Amico processes totally biological olive oil with in 12 hours after picking the fruit from the trees. Many of the trees are ancient goddesses 3 – 400 years old standing watch within walled fields of flowers. The slow process grinds the olives by large stones. The lacrima, or the tears, pools on the pulp and is ladled in the first 10 minutes for the purest olive oil. Then the pulp is pressed on mesh discs for 4 hours and the oil that is extracted is extra virgin. The faster process grinds the olives with metal discs using centrifugal resulting in an oil of a much lower quality. I have never before tasted oil that tastes like the smell of freshly cut grass. I am definitely spoiled for life.

The place I found the most fascinating was Alberobello. This UNESCO [] site is a community of trulli buildings, cone shaped houses, built in the ancient style of motarless construction. Legend says that the residents were able to dismantle their homes when the taxman came to avoid paying taxes on structures built on the king’s land. After he had passed, what appeared to be piles of rubble, the houses were reconstructed until the next visit. The streets weave around hobbit houses painted stark white with flat stone conical roofs capped with pieces bearing ancient symbols. The double walls are layers of flat rock over loose stone used for insulation. The interior is an even temperature all year, the walls are stuccoed and white washed with curtains separating the sparse rooms that were originally heated by the cooking fire. The children sleep in loft spaces closest to the rising warmth and water is stored in a cistern below the structure. Many of the buildings we saw are tourist shops, but the community consists of over a hundred homes that are lived in and lovingly maintained. This was once a thriving neighborhood of those who could afford no less, but now it is a prestigious place for a weekend home.

Another UNESCO site was the I Sassi di Matera. The first residents of these caves are thought to have dug their homes during the Paleolithic times. In the 1300’s this was a highly developed thriving community dug deep into the walls of the cliff. Chambers, lofts, storage areas, hallways and benches are carved from the stone and it is possible to imagine the energy of early apartment living. Churches and monasteries were also built in the same way with freschi painted on the rocks. During the time of Mussolini, running water and sewage systems were created, but due to high unemployment and the desire for that which is modern the residents moved to the “new city” in the 1930’s and many of the caves have been abandoned to garbage piles. The filming of “The Passion of Christ” was done here and some of the sections are now being restored as summer and weekend retreats.

This was definitely an eating drinking trip. People brought homemade wine and snops that was passed around the bus. At every stop the bottles and the food were pulled from bags and generously shared with everyone. We ate some of our meals at traditional restaurants sampling the cuisine and drinks of the region. I have never been too fond of bus tours, but this was a fabulous opportunity for me to get to know the teachers away from the schedule of school and build some lovely friendships that extend back to Nov Gorica.

Home - interior of church

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Walled city of urbino,
Walled olive and cherry trees,
Termoli at sunrise,
Sidewalk chalk painting,
Urbino bascilica square