Spirit of Italy - Reflections, Oct. 25, 2007

November 01, 2007

Spirit of Italy: Reflections – Oct. 25, 2007


Fifty members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, led by Bishop Beverly Shamana, toured Italy this month in Spirit of Italy 2007 “to be stirred by God’s heart of creativity while building and deepening relationships as the Body of Christ,” in the words of the Bishop. Tour members experienced the art and architecture inspired by the Christian faith of Italy’s world famous artists, including Da Vinci and Michelangelo, while taking in the sights and sounds of Italy and interacting with the local citizenry.


Bruce Pettit, a member of the Conference Communications Commission, and Chuck Myer, who served as editor of the Connection, took part in the trip and filed a series of entertaining and enlightening stories along the way


Now, as Bruce reflects back on the experience, we learn how difficult it was for them to get those stories to us.


By Bruce Pettit


Chuck, the Internet and I

Europeans do not seem quite so enamored of the Internet as are we Americans. Our first hotel, between Milan and Verona, didn't have any Internet connection at all. The next three did, but each had only one computer for public use and it was in great demand.


The second hotel, in Venice, had a public connection that cost 3 Euro ($5) for a half hour. It shut off at midnight. The third hotel, between Pisa and Florence, was free but had a 20-minute maximum. And the fourth hotel, in Rome, was also free but shut down at 11 p.m.: Chuck barely got off his story on Assisi, he said.


At all the hotels, the navigation screens were in Italian and all the hotels’ computers had slightly different keyboard configurations. We had the darndest time finding the “at” (@) key, and the apostrophes and quote marks were in different places on each hotel’s keyboard. Much of our limited online time was spent figuring out these technicalities so that we could connect. We were fortunate to file stories at all, let alone send pictures, had Chuck and I figured out how to do that! [Note: Bruce and Chuck have now provided us with wonderful photo galleries of the trip, which can be viewed online by linking to http://www.cnumc.org/photo_find.asp]


Not like Galileo’s day

We hit nine cities in eight days. We often walked on hard cobblestone in these ancient cities.


Keeping our large group together – with locals and other tours weaving in between us – was a challenge. Bill Marx served as disciplinarian in keeping us moving and together. (In Assisi I wanted extended time in the Basilica of St. Francis. No time for that; Bill came and dragged me away. We had to get to Rome before sundown!)


Souvenir hawkers were all over the place. The worst was in Pisa. We had to depart our bus several blocks from the piazza where the cathedral, baptistry, and bell tower (the Leaning Tower) are and get onto a shuttle. From the moment we stepped off the bus heading for the shuttle, the hawkers were in our face – literally pushing themselves on us, dozens of them. Then, at the piazza, we had to walk a narrow alley to get to the actual square. Booths of hawkers were on either side – scarcely two feet away.


I had to rescue Ann Spelbos of Rio Linda UMC, who delighted and smiled at everything – an invitation to hawkers to be more “in your face.” It left me with the impression that Pisa perceives its piazza as a money-maker for the city, not a faith experience, and that they’re fine with that.


Galileo climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower in 1589, dragging cannonballs with him, to do his physics experiment on weights. He didn't have to pay an admission fee, he just did it – and I'm sure he had no hawkers assailing him along the way!


Assisi was the best at keeping hawkers in their place – inside buildings (though open to the street), rather than in your face on the streets. That befits Assisi’s reputation as a place of peace. More power to Assisi!


Roz the Romanian

Roz Stone of Woodland UMC gave me the best anecdote in keeping with what this trip was supposed to be, in part – an experience with other cultures.


Roz wanted to go inside the cathedral in Pisa. She didn’t realize she needed a ticket, which had to be purchased several buildings away, with little time to get it. She found herself mingling with a group of German-speaking tourists as they were gaining entry. As she tried to flow with the German group to get in, they told the doorkeeper, “She's not one of us.” Four Romanians, who speak German, heard that comment, and invited Roz to go with them.


Roz, from her childhood, knew some German. “With my faulty German and their faulty English, we had a nice conversation over 15 minutes,” she said – about where their ancestors came from, and about the schooling of their kids. In Romania, Roz reported from that conversation, kids learn English and French.


“It was just friendly chit-chat, but their intervention was a nice, Christian gesture.”


What Roz did – intermingling with another group to tour a site – is surely a no-no, but we didn’t get the impact of that until the next day, in Florence.


Inside the Galleria dell’ Accademia – where the statue of David is – and other museums, no pictures by the public are allowed because thousands of flashes, day after day, deteriorates the art. As we admired David, two people not of our group intermingled, the better to be shielded – and took pictures. Had the guards noticed, they would have honed in – and blamed our group. The interlopers got away with it.


Then, three days later in Rome – at the Colosseum – our guide, Lorna Kedney, paid the admission price for us California-Nevada 51 in advance. Three people not of our group intermingled, and got through the turnstiles on our dime. How Lorna resolved that one, I didn't hear.


The pigeons of Venice

Venice city officials have tried to ban the feeding of pigeons, but they have failed. Pigeons flock in Venice by the thousands because generations of them have passed on a bit of intelligence: people are friendly; they will feed you.


Merchants sell corn so tourists can experience the novelty. Get corn, and get two pigeons to perch on your shoulder. Hold your arms out with the corn in your hands, and five pigeons will perch on each arm and peck it. Or on your head, to see where the goodies are.


Several of our 51 tried it – among them Tony Lardizabel of Temple UMC, Cathy Taylor of First UMC of Redwood City, and the Rev. Sue Berges of Ely and McGill UMCs. Fellow travelers snapped pictures of their reactions, which ranged from delight to horror.


Venita Jones of Shattuck Avenue UMC in Oakland wanted no part of it. However, innocently finishing some fast food before the gondola ride, she was attacked – and let out the biggest scream of our trip. She later likened the pigeons to flying rats.


Castles: a defense against enemies – and the poor

Several Cal-Nevadans went by boat onto Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, on our second day. On the lake there is a Madonna statue on a buoy – a gift to fishermen, reported Sue Cirillo of San Bruno from the guide’s comment, because they can't always make it to church on Sundays.


It was outside the old fortress town of Sirmione – accessible only on a drawbridge over a moat – that juts out at the tip of a peninsula on the lake. On the boat, Carol Green of Temple UMC in San Francisco and others saw both sides of the peninsula, Roman ruins, and the boiling bubbles from sulfur springs.


Carol would like to return to Sirmione for a week and stay at one of the hotels near the castle. “Mixing the old with the new would make for a beautiful vacation,” she said.


Castles like this were built for defense - not just against enemy outsiders and other Italian city-states: they also served as places for the rich to retreat against plagues such as the 14th century Black Death. Bishop Ambrose of Milan had tried 1,000 years before to avoid such schisms, Lorna reported, imploring that “the earth was created for all – rich and poor.”


Love notes

Love messages – graffiti, actually – “adorn” the walls near the Verona balcony that legend has it inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet.


In Verona there is still a Church of the Spinsters, for women who have not married by age 23.


Michelangelo lived to be 89 years old, and some say it was because he never had a wife to nag him. Our Roman art guide, Alessandra Recalchi, opined that, more likely, Michelangelo never married because he was always in a bad mood – never more so than the four years he had to paint the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II.



Assisi had 200,000 visitors on a peace march the day before we arrived. There are peace marches there about twice a year. Assisi is a worldwide pilgrimage site because of St. Francis.


Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is in a church in Milan. They don't let hordes of tourists march through at any time of day. To show your seriousness, you have to make an appointment months in advance, and it has to fit their schedule. We didn't fit it.


Tiny Venice has 110 churches, mostly Catholic. Rome has 297 in its downtown alone. Why so many? Our Roman guide said it was a status symbol among the rich for each family to have a church of its own.


Only cars with a special permit may enter downtown Rome. Pictures are taken of every vehicle that goes into downtown, to ensure this. Scooters are popular in Rome because they can weave in and out of traffic at will, and scooters need no downtown permit.


Bologna is still known for its Communist faction. Communists still run futilely for office in Italy. But there is no ridicule of them, because they are credited with getting rid of Mussolini's fascism.


Coffee, anyone? Of course, we Americans want our coffee daily. Except that if you say just “coffee” in Italy, you get an espresso. Oops! Have to make that “Coffee Americano.”


Ely UMC, a church of 60 members (2006 Conference Journal & Yearbook), sent five people on this tour of Italy. Pastor Sue Berges just said early this year, “I'm going. Anyone who wants to come along may do so.” Three others did, along with one sister of a member. Leslie Martin of Ely UMC said she and her sister, Joy Moore, of Tallahassee, Florida, try to do one extended thing a year together. They made it the Spirit of Italy trip this year.


Marilyn Trumphour of Rancho Cordova UMC said, “They teach you about all this great art in school, but when you get here, you are overwhelmed.”


Judy Steinbach, also of Rancho Cordova UMC, enjoyed the scenery and “all the different languages I'm hearing. What I don’t like is sitting down to eat.” If seating is outside, particularly with a view of the landscape or of the art, there is an added service charge.


Roz Stone of Woodland UMC still came away without a strong sense of the people of Italy. “We are being taken care of by [Educational Opportunities Tours]. I am grateful for the hospitality of the restaurants and hotels, but I am not really feeling the warmth of the Italian people that I know is there.”


Willa Rodgers of Temple UMC noted a major exception, to which Roz agreed: The people of the Methodist Church of Milan gave us a special presentation and opened their recently-flooded subterranean sanctuary and worshiped with us. Thus our warmest reception was in the “cold north,” not the “warm south” – the exception to our guide Lorna’s rule of thumb that southern Italy is the friendly part of the country, while northern Italy is brusque and businesslike.


Photos:         Chuck Myer in Milan Town Square, Oct. 3.


Pisa as viewed from its famous Leaning Tower (Photo by Chuck Myer, who climbed to the top).


The Rev. Sue Berges of Ely and McGill UMCs, “under attack” by hungry pigeons in Venice (Photo by Bruce Pettit).


Bishop Shamana and her husband, Walter Woods, on Oct. 4 at Sirmione, an ancient town surrounded by a moat, at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into Lake Garda. Entry to the town is gained by crossing a drawbridge over the moat (Photo by Gail Bryan of Livermore).