on Not Drinking the Wine (a story from Italy)

When my mom and sisters and I went to Italy 18 months ago (how was it 18 months ago?), we went in an organized tour. There were about 25 of us, I think, and the four of us were the only practicing Mormons. I got the feeling that there were some opinions in the rest of the group about having the four of us along...you know, the weird, judgmental religious folks who never swear and always dress modestly and don't drink alcohol.

(Maybe it was just my own natural awkwardness in large groups that made me feel that way, and it wasn't ever overtly stated. It was just...something I felt and gathered by my other natural large-group behavior, which is clamming up and then watching everyone else mingle and laugh together and act like normal, functional social beings.)

It wasn't really a problem, of course, at least not for me. I liked almost all of the members of our group and had started to really enjoy them, hearing their stories and even sharing a few of mine. I hoped that they'd overlook my Mormonism and see me for the whole person I am, my religion being just a part of my identity. And it was fine until the night we had dinner at a Tuscan villa. The Corsini vineyard is an absolutely beautiful piece of the world—exactly what you'd imagine when you hear the words "Tuscan villa." An ancient house authentically restored (one day I will set a short story in the kitchen of that building) and a dim and cavernous cellar where the wine aged. They also had an olive grove and a little factory where they processed their olive oil. 

_MG_0974 tuscany

We were served some of that olive oil with our dinner and it was perhaps the most extraordinary flavor I have ever tasted. Extra-virgin, of course, and with a wild sharpness I never knew existed in the world. I didn't want to dilute it by dipping bread into it. Actually, what I wanted to do was drink it. Just little sips. Or dip my finger into it, over and over.

The dinner was held at the vineyard's small restaurant; our group took up the entire loft space, filling the wide, wooden tables. It was far enough into the trip that we all felt like friends, so there was talking and laughing and telling of stories and sharing what we'd discovered in Florence earlier that day (what I discovered in Florence: a burning desire to return to Florence). The food was delicious, with that olive oil and a crusty bread, a cheese risotto that I will never forget, and a meat dish that might have freaked me out if I knew exactly what it was (I still don’t know). 

Included with our meal were four glasses of the house wine, and because of that, there was a great kerfuffle when we all sat down; everyone wanted to sit by us because they knew we'd probably not drink our wine. More for them! As the meal started to be served, they started bringing the wine, each type served with different parts of the meal. And as each glass was brought out, and someone else asked if they could have mine, I grew more and more uncomfortable. I felt like my inside were writhing, as if my heart itself were shaking and my lungs rippling. I finally had to excuse myself and go find the bathroom, not because I needed it (it wasn't that kind of writhing) but because I had to get away.

Not from the wine. Not from the people drinking the wine. But from my perception of what the people drinking wine were thinking about me not drinking the wine. 

I wanted, in fact, to stand in the middle of them and make a (sober) pronouncement. "I've gotten sloshed before!" I wanted to tell them. "I've been just as drunk as any of the rest of you. I’m really not a prude." I felt like they thought I was a foolish, innocent, manipulated adult acting like a baby. Not tasting what I imagine was some fairly delicious wine, simply because my religion told me I couldn't. 

And that isn’t why I don’t drink.

I’m not a drinker because my sister is. Because I am missing an entire relationship in my life, because of alcohol and drugs. I’m not a drinker because yes: I am afraid of being an alcoholic. I haven’t forgotten—how that feels. How things hurt less, how it is to have a thing to turn to when all of the other things become unbearable.  How sweet and lovely it is, to forget, to laugh, to drop what is too heavy right into the bottom of the bottle. I know myself, know my own proclivities for self-harm and the desperate need to feel blank. But I also know the other side of it, know that all too soon the blankness seeps into everything.

I would rather feel the hard parts than find the numbness has also invaded the good parts.

But what it felt like, that night in Italy, was that they felt my not drinking was a judgement against them. Which isn’t true. I know that we Mormons have that reputation—of being judgmental. But that is a blanket statement, one that is too small to cover all of us. Yes, there are many judgmental Mormons. There are racist ones, too, bigots, chauvinists. Just as there are in Catholic churches and Baptist ones, in the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith—in universities and hospital staff and the people who work at the grocery store.

We are not all uptight, judgmental people. We are many things. (The people in the church itself are, I think, finally beginning to learn this as well.) Mostly we are, like everyone else, just human. Imperfectly human. Some of us are open minded. Some of us question, wonder, and doubt. But we are all trying to find our way—the close-minded as well as the liberals.

I finally went back to the table. For a few minutes, I thought about drinking the next glass of wine the waitress brought me. I thought about proving it to the rest of them, that I wasn’t immature, that I wasn’t controlled by my religion, that I could choose whatever I wanted. My writhing finally settled, though, when I chose not to. If I am not immature, I am also old enough that I don’t need to impress anyone by drinking. And besides: what is the difference between me judging them for drinking (which I wasn’t doing anyway) and them judging me for not drinking?

So I didn’t drink. I gave my next glass of wine to someone, and the last one to someone else. I ate my delicious meal and I savored that olive oil—I did, I confess, dip my finger in, more than once—and I even managed to tell stories and laugh with the rest of them. Even sober.

A few days after the vineyard dinner, when we were walking through the horrid little ugly town outside of Venice where our hotel was, one of the group members put her arm around my shoulder and said “You know, when I heard that there would be Mormons in our group, I was a little bit worried. But I like you and your family. How did you all turn out so open-minded?”

I couldn’t speak for anyone else. In fact, I’m not sure that I even spoke well for myself. But what I told her is this: I have learned that my spiritual journey is just that: it is mine. My sisters’ are theirs, as are my kids’ and my husband’s and my friends’. I can hope to influence them. I can share what I believe. But I can only find the answers that are right for me, because that is all I have dominion over. This means that I have to find my own way. I doubt and question nearly everything, until I understand it. Or if I don’t understand it, I figure out how to fit it in my life, or sometimes how to not have it fit but still go on my way. (So much of any Christian religion is a distraction anyway, from the real point, which is learning and trying to be like Christ.) I am open minded because I think that each person is on his or her own journey, and it isn’t my place to direct them. Most of religion is us fumbling in the dark. It isn’t cut and dried, it isn’t black and white. It is choosing and navigating and falling and getting back up; it is entirely between us as individuals and God, and I can’t get in the middle of that. I can’t say that my choices are right for anyone else but myself.

But what I do know is that my meandering, hilly experience has brought me to some truths. These are my truths and I own them because I worked for them. They aren’t true for me because someone told me they were true, but because I thought, prayed, pondered, experienced, learned. Not being a drinker is one of those truths. I hope my kids can learn that from me rather than the hard way, but I also know that the hard way is sometimes the only way, and that some choices must be made and remade over an entire lifetime.

Maybe not all Mormons are like me. (That’s laughable. I am not much like many, many Mormons.) But not all of us judge. Not all of us think we are the only right answer. Not all of us fit the mold. And many, many more than others might think are choosing what we choose not because The Church told us to choose it, but because we decided. It is in the deciding that the power lies.

(This blog post written as a response to an interaction I had with a library patron today, who ranted at me for a good five minutes about how much she hates Mormons because "all they ever do is judge anyone.")

Italy is Calling

I wanted to go running in Rome.

_MG_0465 obelisk in Rome

For me, running on a vacation is part of what makes the vacation awesome. It isn’t even really about the exercise itself, but about presence. About moving through an entirely different landscape than my usual one. Running in a place makes the place feel more a part of me, and I wanted that in Rome. I wanted to have that in my life’s oeuvre, even if it wasn’t a very long run, wanted the experience of running past all of those old buildings and along the cobbled streets.

Our hotel was close to the Termini train station and the Piazza della Reupubblica; the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was just down the street, so that was the route I wanted to take.

IMG_9779 maria magiori back side

It was our first full day there, and I woke up refreshed, early enough to get a few miles in, so I talked Becky into putting on her running shoes and coming with me. We hustled down the stairs and walked out of our hotel to find a very cloudy Rome. A very cloudy and then very wet Rome, as the rain that had fallen in the night started falling again. We didn’t make it very far—just to the corner behind the basilica, and then we talked ourselves out of running in the rain.

I wish we hadn’t.

I wish we’d just kept running, made our loop, and rushed through breakfast. I wish I had those thirty minutes so I could always think I went running in Rome.

I think we thought we’d have another chance. But our days were so full of walking that the rest of the mornings, it felt impossible to get up early enough for a run. Really, the only running I did in Italy was when I sprinted from the Tower of Pisa to our meeting place. (I was two minutes early.)

Running in Rome is one of the reasons I want to go back to Italy.

IMG_0522 cobblestones in orvietto 4x6

When my mom first started talking about taking a trip to Rome, about two years ago, it seemed so far-fetched as to be impossible. Normal people like us didn’t just go to Italy. Plus…Italy? My fantasy trip to Europe was all about England and Ireland. I don’t know that I’d ever really even thought about going to Italy.

But, a year ago, I went to Italy.

IMG_0518 orvietto duomo 4x6

And now I understand why people want to go there. It is a magical place, really, a magic I didn’t know existed. The air feels different there, the light, the smells. Maybe that can be said about all foreign places and I’m just illustrating how few times I have really traveled. Probably when I make it to the British Isles I’ll fall in love with its air and light and smells, too, but in a different way. Italy’s magic, I think, is only found in Italy. It’s all the history, of course, time tingling just underneath your feet. It’s the very real possibility of great food around every corner. It is nuns walking down the street in their habits and athletic shoes, the whizz of all those little cars, and a magnificent church where ever you find yourself.

It is the way art imbibes everything.

IMG_9776 sculpture in rome 4x6

In Rome, I ate a pizza intended to feed three people all by myself. Tomatoes, rocket salad (what the Italians call arugula), cheese and spices. Simple, but so delicious I don’t regret it for a second. 

Rocket salad pizza 2x3

In Rome I ate a grapefruit gelato, walked to the Pantheon, and then ate a rose gelato (it tasted very delicate, sweet, and pink): two gelatos in less than an hour.

_MG_9942 gelato by the trevi fountain

In Orvietto, I ate the best salami and cheese I had ever had, until I had some in  San Gimignano, and now I can’t decide which one was more delicious.

_MG_0724 san gimignano lunch 4x6 crop


At a Tuscan vineyard, I tasted the strongest, most startling olive oil I have ever experienced and that moment—the bite of flavor on my tongue and my utter surprise that such a culinary pleasure existed in the world—is etched onto my food memories.

IMG_0982 olive tree 4x6

I will forever be trying to replicate it with inferior olive oils.

But it isn’t just the food. It’s the beauty of the landscape, too. All those mountains and fields and then the cities springing out. It’s all the ties to books and stories and myths. It is everything I found in a country I didn’t know I wanted to visit.

Now I’ve been once, I desperately want to go again. To go running in Rome—more than once (past the colosseum, and along the Tiber under the sycamores, and on the streets of Vatican City), and also in Sienna and maybe a very-early route through Venice. To do the things I couldn’t the first time, to do some of the same things again. To have entirely different reactions and unplanned experiences. I threw one coin with my right hand over my left shoulder into the Trevi fountain, which should ensure my return. I might never make it back…but I hope I do.

_MG_0011 piazza navona 4x6

(click HERE to read more about my trip to Italy.)

Tips for Traveling with a Guide Group: A Top-Ten List (with Photos!)

Last October, I went to Italy on a guided tour. This was one of my mom’s dreams, to go to Italy together with her daughters, and she got it all organized for us. I’ve never traveled like this before—the itinerary, transportation, and accommodations all planned by someone else, and everyone in the larger group a complete stranger. I think I’d do it again, but there are a few things I wish I would’ve known from the very first day of the trip. Here are my tips for traveling with a group on a guided tour (along with some of my favorite photos from Italy):

1. Get a travel guidebook of your own. That sort of sounds counterintuitive…why would you need to read and learn about a place where you’ll have someone guiding and teaching you? We had some really excellent tour guides on my trip. (I can’t think about Rome without hearing our Rome guide’s beautiful voice saying “Roma” and “andiamo!”) But when you already know some of the history, Vatican cityscape small amy sorensen
geography, politics, art, and architecture of the places you’re going, your response to the area will be so much more complex and complete. In the places I hadn’t read about (namely, Orvietto and San Gimgiano) I felt like I didn’t know what to focus on because I didn’t know what I could do there. My experience was much richer in, say, Florence and Siena, where I’d read about the basilicas, towers, history, and famous people. Sometimes the tour guide will repeat something you’ve learned, but then you can just nod your head in your shared wisdom. Plus, a guidebook will give you some ideas for where to eat, which is handy when you don’t have an international data plan on your smart phone.

Tuscan vineyard small amy sorensen

2. Take advantage of having a guide. Stick close to him/her and listen. Ask questions too. These are people who thoroughly and intimately know the cities you’re only visiting. The knowledge and details they share with you are, quite frankly, part of what you paid for. Wandering through an unknown city is much more fun when you learn about what you’re looking at, rather than only looking at it. Plus you’ll have more little tidbits to share when you get home. (And, speaking of paying for the guides…remember that you’ll need to tip them when they’re finished. I didn’t know this and I would’ve got more cash if I had.)

Venice buildings small amy sorensen

3. Make friends! This is the best thing about traveling with people you don’t know: you get to meet other people. I loved talking to and getting to know other people in our group. We were all pretty different in lifestyles, careers, families, and time of life. It didn’t matter because we found different things in common. If you are traveling with people you know (like I was with my mom and two sisters), it’s easy to be sort of clique-y and stick just to that group. But your experience will be much more fun if you try to make friends with everyone. Go to all of the group activities, especially the meals. Sit by someone new every time you eat as a Pantheon small amy sorensen
 group, or in the bus. Ask people what they are reading or listening to. Ask to look at their pictures or what they thought about a place. I enjoyed this so much that I found myself striking up conversations with other strangers as well, like the father and daughter from Ireland who we chatted with at a restaurant in Rome. (This isn’t normally a strength of my introverted personality.) Talking to them (and listening to their accent) was one of my favorite moments.

Bologna detail small amy sorensen

4. Be patient with people. Everyone has different travel styles and expectations. This is not a bad thing, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Maybe you’re expecting lots of time to linger in gift stores because that’s your thing. But someone else’s thing is more time in the actual museum (or whatever). You can work around this by talking to people, letting them know what you are hoping to do, and perhaps most importantly, remembering you’re not the only one on the trip. Also remember that you can only move as quickly as the slowest person in your group. If you are a fast walker, use your extra time for lingering in the doorways of shops, admiring perspectives you’d otherwise miss, or taking pictures. If you are a slow walker, don’t feel guilty or worried about it. You’re just giving the faster people chances to get more intimate with the place you’re in.

Sunset small amy sorensen

5. Expect that you'll start to rub on each other. If you were traveling with twenty or 25 people you knew and loved, this would still be true, so when it’s people you don’t know very well? It happens. There will be someone who bugs you. That's OK, because you're likely bugging someone else. Decide not to be a victim of annoyance by doing your best to overlook the actions of someone else who is rubbing you the wrong way; assume the best about everyone. By the third day, I was acutely and painfully aware of which person I was bugging. By the fifth day I decided I didn’t care if I was bugging him because I had paid for my trip, too, and I wasn’t going to let his annoyance ruin it. The best way to deal with someone who’s bothering you? Take advantage of any and all free time. Which brings us to tip number 6.

Colloseum small amy sorensen

6. Take advantage of any and all free time. This is another reason for the first tip. If you have some basic knowledge of the city, a map (already in the guidebook!), and an idea of what you want to see, you’ll be much more productive with your free time. I, for example, did not read up on Bologna before we got there, so with the free time we had, we saw the main basilica and not much else. But when we were in Rome and had an entire afternoon to ourselves, my sister Becky and I saw the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Spanish Steps, and several other landmarks. We walked next to the Tiber river; we revisited the places we’d felt rushed in before, like the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain; we found Castle, bridge, and river small amy sorensen
the metro and figured out how to ride it back to our hotel. (That was one of my favorite afternoons.) We knew we wanted to do all of those things because we’d both read a guidebook or two. Don’t be afraid to let yourself get a little bit lost. You’ll discover things you love that you couldn’t find any other way, and people are friendly in Italy. Even if you’re really lost, someone will help you find your way back. (Just keep watching your watch if you have to be back at a certain time!)

Burano small amy sorensen

7. Thoroughly understand what is happening each day. Don't assume anything! Ever since I first saw the itinerary for our trip, I was anticipating the moment we would walk through the duomo in Siena. One of my friends had told me how much she loved it, especially the interior, and I couldn’t wait to see and feel what she told me about. While we were in Siena, however, we toured the Basilica of San Domenico instead. This was a beautiful, simple church, with the head (literally) of St. Catherine enshrined in one of its naves. I enjoyed learning about it. But then we just walked right past the Siena duomo! We saw the outside but it wasn’t in the plan to go inside of it. Sienna duomo small amy sorensen
If I had understood the plan for the rest of the day, I would have known that I did have enough time to see the cathedral on my own if I skipped out on part of the tour. (There is no rule that says you have to stay with the group the entire time.) Sticking with the tour most of the time is probably the best idea, but if there is something you must absolutely see, and it’s not on the itinerary but there is time for you to see it on your own, I say be brave and go for it. But this can only happen if you understand what is happening each day. Ask questions! 

Tuscany small amy sorensen

8. Be on time. Nothing annoys group members as much as having to wait for someone. I know this for two reasons—I waited for late people, and I was late myself. Twice, in fact. The first time happened when we were walking back to the bus, but as I was with more members of the group than just myself, I wasn’t worried. (People still thought I was late.) The second time I was late really was unforgiveable. It happened when we were leaving in the morning, on one of the days we were changing hotels, and it took Becky and I longer to pack than we thought. I’m still embarrassed that it happened. Especially pay attention to the meeting time when you have free time or if you are breaking away from the group. It helps everything run more smoothly and it’s probably nice not to embarrass yourself.

Rome cityscape small amy sorensen

9. Be open to unexpected and spontaneous experiences. One of my favorite moments happened in Rome. Becky and I were in the lobby one night, sort of late, and we noticed there was a bunch of people from our tour group hanging out in the bar. So we joined them. Again: introvert here. My heart was pounding at first, and I didn’t do an excellent job at mingling. But I managed it. And actually had fun! Another spontaneous moment happened in our hotel near Venice. A few minutes before we were supposed to meet at the bus in the morning, some of the group members ended up in the lobby together. There was a piano, and one of the members (a skilled, professional pianist) played a song for us. It was amazing and beautiful and wonderful. I have a theory that if your heart and mind are open—not too devoted to schedules or personal fears or anything else—then life will bring you these unexpected moments. Watch out for them, and then grab them when you have the chance!

Siena romulus and remus fountain small Amy Sorensen

10. Get the email addresses of the people in your tour group. Especially the ones you'd like to swap pictures with. I still would like to do this! If you are taking pictures, you’re far less likely to be in your pictures. But you’re probably in other people’s pictures (just like you’ll have some great photos of the other tour group members). Figure out a way to share them. The group I traveled with did not do this, but I still would like to see some of their pictures.

San gimignano small amy sorensen

And, I know I wrote that this is a top ten list, but here’s a very important bonus tip:

Go to the bathroom every chance you get. Seriously. Italians must have the world's largest bladders, I don't know. But there are very few bathrooms. So prepare yourself. Keep a Euro or two in your pocket (yes, you have to pay for many of them) and whenever anyone finds a bathroom, use it. If you find a bathroom, tell everyone else about it. This doesn't seem like a tip that fits with traveling with a group, but I promise: you'll annoy people if all you talk about is how badly you have to pee. And it's hard to be social and outgoing when you’re uncomfortable like that. 

Forum detail small amy sorensen

Have you ever traveled with a group? What suggestions do you have?

(Read more about my moments in Italy:

First church in Rome

In the Accademia


Italian Moment #3: The Blessings of Florence

When you go to Rome, you are supposed to throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder into the Trevi fountain if you want to return to Rome. _MG_9932 becky amy trevi fountain 4x6
 I tossed a Euro and made the wish, and while I loved Rome and hope to go back there again, the city I most want to revisit is Florence.

Since we went to Italy on a guide tour, the itinerary was already planned. We didn't stay in Florence, but drove there from Montecatini. Once we arrived, we met up with a tour guide who walked us through the city.

_MG_0858 florence
Everywhere you look in Florence, there is a small,beautiful detail
_MG_0857 florence odeon theater
The famous Odeon theater. We didn't catch a flick.
_MG_0853 florence 4x6
Even the doors are beautiful!

We stopped at the Florence Cathedral (the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori) and the Baptistery,

(I found this image of Santa Maria by doing a Google image search! Alas, not mine!)

but since we were there on a Sunday we couldn't actually go inside the buildings. (People were going to church there.) After taking some photos and getting us each a copy of a city map, the tour guide showed us more of Florence. She pointed out monuments, buildings, museums, and bridges with historical importance, giving us an idea of the city's layout, and then led us to the Accademia, where I had my moment with the slaves

Then we had some free time.

Most of the people in the group decided to go to the leather market. I was sorely tempted to join them, as I had visions of finding a belt for Nathan (belts being one of his favorite things, ever since he was little) and a gorgeous Italian leather backpack for myself. But Becky and I had other ideas. We had someone show us where we would all meet up (as well as the location of the leather market, just in case we had time), the San Lorenzo basilica, and then we were off on our own adventure.

We wanted to climb the 414 stairs in Giotto's Campanile.

Having already earned our title as the "straggler sisters" (a story in its own right), we didn't want to be late to the meeting place. So we hustled. We stopped at a little restaurant on a side street, where we scarfed a delicious pizza and a thoroughly disappointing cannola. (One of my wishes for my trip to Italy that wasn't realized: eating some delicious and amazing cannoli.) Then, as we walked to the Campanile following our handy map, one of the street vendors stopped Becky to tell her she'd dropped something. When we looked behind us and saw nothing he said, "You dropped my heart, beautiful lady." This was her third Italian admirer, but alas, we did not have time for her to be wooed.

But it did make us laugh all the way to the Piazza del Duomo.

Giotto's Campanile is the free-standing bell tower of Florence Cathedral. It is absolutely breathtaking even before you start climbing the stairs. (I cannot believe I didn’t take one photo of the tower itself.) Dark pink, white, and green marble in geometric patterns, hexagonal relief panels depicting biblical scenes and scholarly ideas, rows of lozenges, niches, and statues. Like the cathedral, it was designed to look like a painting. Very ornate, of course, but so beautiful. The top three levels are each built larger than the lower one, so that when you look up at the tower, the effects of perspective cannot be seen. It took 25 years to build the tower; during part of that time no work was completed because of the Black Plague.

Oh how I wish I could hear the history stories those old stones could tell!

Becky and I laughed, talked, and breathed fairly heavily going up those stairs. It's a sort of a spiral staircase, sometimes curving but mostly turning sharply, very narrow and steep, with a low ceiling.

Florence detail copy
When I took this photo from one of the stair landings I thought I was being creative. I've since seen about a million interpretations of it.

As we climbed, I thought about the people in the past who would've done this as part of their lives. The people who rang the bells, or priests I suppose. The stairs are worn smooth from people's feet, but the high reaches of the walls are dusty. It is like breathing in history.

 At the top, we wandered around.
IMG_0906 florence tiles on giottos campanile
(The tiles on top of the tower. I prefer to think that white stuff is patina, not bird poop. Please do not disabuse me of this notion. Thank you.)

There was a procession of some sort, winding its way through the narrow streets.

IMG_0894 florence view from giottas tower
The view is fairly amazing, all of those Tuscan rooftops and narrow streets, the birthplace of the Renaissance spread out below you.  

I really, really wish I would've taken more pictures. I wish I would've handed my camera over to a stranger for a photo of me and Becky on top of the tower. I wish I would've crouched down at the bottom of the tower and photographed it that way. I wish I would've taken more pictures on top. I have some pictures—but not enough, and that is an exact reflection of my frustrated feeling that day. I tend to get impatient with photography when I am in a bad mood. 

I was in Florence...and I was in a bad mood. How dumb of me. But it felt like being given an entire box of chocolates and then having time to eat half of one. I wanted the whole box! I wanted to have time to see all of Florence. So it's not that I was grumpy. Just highly frustrated.

Once we stood on the top of the tower, and admired the view, we climbed back down, and set off to find the Ponte Vecchio. Ponte vecchio bridge
This is a bridge that crosses the Arno River, and was the only bridge not destroyed by the Germans when they retreated from Florence during World War II. Florentine bridges used to all have those buildings on top—they were places for shopping and gathering. Only the Ponte Vecchio still has them. They used to be butcher shops, but now they are little shops where you can buy jewelry and souvenirs. 

By this time,  we were seriously racing to beat the clock. We crossed the Arno on the Santa Trinita bridge.

IMG_0917 florence santa trinita bridge
This is a bridge that was destroyed during the war. On each of its entrances, it has two statues, and they were destroyed as well. Each of the four statues depicts one of the seasons. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt and the statues pieced back together (their parts mostly lying in the river until they were restored). I wanted to stop and admire each statue, but since we didn’t have much time, I settled for photographing each of them. The light was bad and I was hurrying so even that “settling” was disappointing as the pictures aren’t great. Santa trinita statues tetraptych text
(I had to convert them all to black and white. Otherwise they were too awful to look at.)

The best photo I took of the statues was this one, which is the back of the summer statue:

IMG_0923 florence santa trinita bridge back of summer

It is so moving to me—the clear lines of where it was pieced back together are evocative of my Mary figurine and what it still means to me. 

After crossing the bridge, we speed-walked down a small side street to get to the Ponte Vecchio. This is one of my most vivid memories of Florence, for some reason, the small shops with their lighted windows and food, the heavy grey skies, the hustle of the crowds, the slight scent of the river. We turned a corner and there it was, the Ponte Vecchio. I wanted to stop and linger but we had like eight minutes to get to San Lorenzo. I crossed the Ponte Vecchio—but I didn't get to linger or really experience it.

We started to sprint. And then the weirdest thing happened—I slowed down. You have to know this about me: I am seriously a fast walker. But for some reason, I just could not walk fast. Or at least not as fast as Becky was walking. My feet were hot and my ankle was throbbing (I had my brace on) and I felt like I was walking through mud. Amy in florence from becky
As I got slower I got more and more frustrated. What was wrong with me?

We passed the leather market and I looked at my watch, but there was definitely no time to shop, so my perfect Italian leather backpack and Nathan’s favorite belt stayed in Italy. We kept walking and we made it to San Lorenzo with three minutes to spare—and no one was there to see the Straggler Sisters' early arrival! Or, at least, no one from our group. All that hurried rushing only to discover we could have lingered for just a bit.

San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in Florence. It’s surrounded by an enormous square of crumbling stone steps. I sat down on the stairs of the church and I took off my boots so I could get rid of my ankle brace. I actively did not take any photos. Even though I want one now, so much, even just of my boots on the steps. Of that ancient church and my Eeyore self. I'm pretty sure Becky sat ten feet away from me, because she didn't want to be inundated by the waves of frustration rolling off of me. There we were in Florence, with a ridiciulously small amount of time to actually see much, and I finally realized why I had been walking so slow: I needed to pee. SO BADLY.

One thing about Italy: they don't really do bathrooms. Probably if you know all of the secrets, you know where the bathrooms are. But in that square, I couldn't find one. And I was in serious pain. I walked (slowly) around the square, hoping to find a bathroom. I didn't dare ask anyone "dove e il bagno?" because there was no way I could understand their quick responses. So I looked (in vain) through the belts a small merchant was selling. I saw no leather backpacks. Becky stood watch for me as the tour group members started trickling back, and then I just gave up. I sat down right there, on the steps of a church that seemed beautiful in such a simple, striking way, in a remarkable city full of history, architecture, art, and beauty, and I felt such a combination of annoyance, frustration, and desire for more that it was like I was sitting in a black puddle.

I might as well have just gone ahead and peed my pants.

And then I had my Florence Moment.

A nun, walking toward the church but from a different angle from where I was sitting, changed directions. She walked right over to me, patted my shoulder, and touched my forehead with the thumb of her other hand. She said something in Italian, squeezed my shoulder, and walked into the church.

My puddle evaporated.

I don't know what she said. Maybe it was "you're acting like a giant baby right now." Maybe it was “Yes, you didn’t get to see everything you wanted, but you are here, right now, in Italy. Cheer up.” Maybe it was “there’s a bathroom around that corner.”

But to me it was a blessing. A benediction of sorts. I thought about the feeling I had had while in St. Peter’s Cathedral, standing in front of the statue of St. Peter, which has a foot that, if you touch it, is supposed to give you a blessing. The foot is worn thin from so many centuries of touch, and it made me think about how powerful touch is, how it connects us and yes, blesses us. How we give a small portion of ourself in that touch, too. Being touched on the shoulder by the nun was the same feeling, only better because this was real.

My frustration drained away.

Eventually, everyone from the tour group arrived. In fact, I think they all thought I was the late one holding everyone up. I wasn’t late though. I was sitting on the ancient steps in front of an ancient church, thinking about how moments with God are not limited to time in churches or temples. They are not narrowed by religious denomination or gender or nationality. They are a thing you can find anywhere, even when you have blocked yourself into a black emotional corner.

The spirit is everywhere if you watch for it. Or maybe you sometimes have to sit still enough in your darkness for the light to find you, but it will.

I won’t say everything was magically better. I still had tons of walking left with my stupid aching bladder holding me back. (Our tour guide finally stopped at a bathroom in a tiny alleyway and I have never been so grateful to hand over money to pee.) IMG_0943 perseus and medusa 3x6
I still wanted to shop and explore. Not getting to examine statues in the Loggia di Lanzia in the Piazza della Signoria (Perseus with the Head of Medusa, The Rape of the Sabine Women, the Medici lions…) felt like ripping my heart out. IMG_0948 florence sabine women 3x6
Walking past the Uffizi without going in—the Uffizi where Bottecelli’s “Birth of Venus” is hanging?—was physically painful.

But I had more of a peaceful heart (even if it was ripped out of my chest) and a lift to my feet. I tried to savor whatever I had left of Florence—walking past the city hall, IMG_0938 florence city hall
at least seeing those statues, listening to the tour guide talk about Santa Croce, a Christian church designed by a Jewish architect who included a Star of David. (This is where Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are buried.) IMG_0960 florence santa croce 4x6


I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Florence. There wasn’t a fountain to throw a coin into along with a wish. But it’s there, on the top of my list: revisit Florence. See all the churches. Go to the Uffizi. See more of the Accademia than just the Slaves and David. Walk slowly along the Arno, cross all the bridges, shop at the leather market.

Find my Italian leather backpack.

But even if I don’t ever go back, the nun’s blessing (for that is how I will think of it) centered me enough that I could remember how lucky I was to be in Italy.
Amy and becky in florence

Italian Moment #2: Michelangelo's Atlas Slave

When you visit Italy, it is almost a commandment that you must see Michelangelo's David statue.
IMG_0945 david outside 3x6
(This is a replica of the real statue, which was moved inside to protect it from the elements.)
Everywhere you go in Italy, you see David postcards and little replica David statues and David coffee mugs and even David aprons. The David is housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence—beautiful Florence, which is the Italian city I most want to revisit. _MG_0868 florence map
We walked to the museum under the careful direction of our tour guide, who gave us a sort of walking history lesson as we moved through Florence's streets.
My friend Steve, who'd gone to Italy the year before I did, had told me a hilarious story about how he took a picture of his traveling friend next to the David statue, and almost got thrown out of the Accademia for it because there is no photography allowed inside the museum, and how he'd pretended to wipe his memory card to be allowed to stay, but didn't really and then is still so happy to have that picture of David and his friend. And as I already felt like most of the other people in our tour group were highly annoyed by me, I definitely did not want to incur more sideways glances, so I didn't even try to sneak a photo.
But really, the David statue ended up being the least important thing I saw in that museum, at least for me.
David is situated in a gallery at the end of a wide, long, hall. (There is a good imagine HERE.) Leading the way (and, I suppose, your eye) are other pieces of artwork and sculpture, and here is where you find Michelangelo's Slave statues (they are also called the Prisoners). These are a series of four (actually there are six, but the other two are in the Louvre) sculptures of human form, only unlike David they aren't chiseled to perfection. Instead, they are works of "non-finito," purposefully left unfinished.
As our tour guide taught us about how Michelangelo worked—discovering the form within the slab of marble, rather than planning out the exact finished piece, and how this was a reflection of his belief that the sculptor was God's hands, revealing what He had hidden inside—I confess I only listened with one ear. Partly because, hello, I am a reader and a librarian, and more than once (although I'm not sure where, exactly), I've read this about Michelangelo. But mostly because the art was grabbing my attention, so, daring the wrath of my fellow tour group members, I wandered away. The statues—real Michelangelo, not something in a book—were drawing every bit of my attention.
So I stood in front of the first one, The Awakening Slave.
01 slave-awakening
(Photos of the Slaves taken from the Accademia website, as really: I didn't take a single picture inside!)
Slaves, and the idea of slaves, and all of the long centuries when the poor have had to do so much hard work for the wealthy—this was where my thoughts went. 
02 slave-young
The Young Slave
Michelangelo could've found any sort of character within those blocks of stone, Roman goddesses, Christian priests, farmers or midwives or kings. 

But inside stone he found slaves, people whose lives were about serving others.
03 slave-bearded
The Bearded Slave
How they must've wanted to break free of the stones of their lives, and how impossible that mostly proved.
At each sculpture, I could see this, the wanting to emerge but the impossibility of it. I know it is a statement about how the artist worked, and what he found inside of marble. I know it is supposed to be accidental, revealing what was always there. But to find, and partially set free, slaves from stone? The works said something more than only artistic process and creative expression. They said something about people, and how we are bound by where we find ourselves in our lives. Imperfect, yes, but also trying to be who we are. The unfinished stone the young, the awakening, and the bearded slaves were partially trapped in seemed organic, a thing they had always been emerging from.
I loved them, as art and statement and exploration.
But then I stood in front of the last unfinished slave in the hall, Atlas.
04 slave-atlas
And I, very quietly, wept.
Because some art is simply art: beautiful, moving, precise, exact. Unforgettable, of course. Amazing.
But some art is personal, because it communicates in a medium (paint, pencil, words, stone) a truth in the beholder's life. Not just communicates—it translates, from truth to an object. The truth brought into the world as something you can see and touch and maybe even smell.
Michelangelo's Atlas Slave is that kind of art for me.
Because here is a truth: I am the mother of teenagers. And listen, they aren't bad teenagers. I know bad teenagers; I know them hard and restless and impossible. I know I am blessed with good teenagers. They make me laugh and feel hope for the future and I love them more than anything.
But it is so hard to be the mother of teenagers. At first you were just you, just yourself. You still are yourself, or becoming yourself. Creating yourself. But with your body you've also created these beings, and at first you think you're just having a baby, but then they grow up and you realize you were having a person. A person with needs, issues, and foibles. And they become teenagers and you realize how much matters. Everything, in fact, matters. Because there are so many different possible damaging experiences. What if they sleep with their boyfriend? What if they stop believing in God? What if they take up drinking or drugs? What if they are in a car wreck? What if they fail their classes? What if they don't earn a scholarship, or make up with their best friend, or just experience some brief happy moments?
(What if something bad happens, and then another bad thing, and another, and then they can't deal at all and everything gets ruined? I must remind myself, again and again, that that is the stone of my making, not theirs. Not their destiny.)
So you're there—carrying the stone you are making yourself out of. But you also pick up their stone. You carry it in the form of worry, cajole, argument, fear, nightmares, discussions. Prayers. Hope. Some teaching. Some helping with homework at 2 in the morning.
But it's mostly all in your head, the weight, because they must do the work.
At that is why the Atlas statue made me weep. Because it is the way it feels to mother teenagers, made manifest.
Unlike the other statues, Atlas doesn't seem to be struggling to break free. He is only struggling to carry the load. To me, it isn't stone that he is emerging from; it is stone that has been folded over him. And look where it is: his shoulders, yes. But also his head. It is heavy and he wants to sit but he remains standing, he remains carrying, because what else can you do? You have to carry their weight in the only way you can. The hoping. The praying. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could cast it off. Walk away with only your own burdens. But you won't. You love them too much, even though it is heavy.
All mothers are Atlases. We carrying the weight of our children's lives, and it is weighty because it is so important. Because we don't want them to be hurt. To feel hurt, to be irrevocably changed by it. We want them to look like David, in his beam of light at the end of the hall: perfect. But we know they will be slaves to their own stone.
Just as we are.
The weeping wasn't really about the weight. It was about the acknowledgment of it. It was about knowing, for the rest of my life, that there exists in the world a piece of art that captures how I feel. It was about how art erases loneliness because it makes you feel less alone in what you are experiencing. Even though maybe I am the only person in the world to have that response to that statue; even though Michelangelo did not intended, I am certain, to reach out a word of—what? comfort? of a sort—to a woman 500 years in the future, that is what art does.
So yes: I went to Italy and I saw the David sculpture. I walked around it quietly. I saw that his second toes are longer than his big toes. I marveled at how living he seems to be, for all his stone.
But what changed me, just a little bit but for forever, was Atlas.

Italian Moment #1: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Nearly eight months ago, I was busy preparing for my trip to Italy. And here I am, more than half a year later, having written almost nothing about a trip that changed me in some specific ways. Partly I haven't written about Italy because I want to do it really, really well, and that goal makes it feel intimidating. Partly it is because I'm still working on processing all of the photos I took, and I've gotten bogged down in that, too.
Part of it is just looking for a word to describe the sensation I had throughout the entire trip. Or, at least, one of the sensations. I've written about this a little bit before. The way that when you stand in a place that is old, there are so many layers of story there, and if you could just figure out how to make them like paper, somehow, so you could flip through them and see all the stories, you would get a glimpse of humanity, all if it happening in various times but in one specific place. I want to know those stories, and you can almost, almost feel them there, tingling just outside the range of what you can touch. I think of this feeling as the time story (if I were clever I'd have a better name for it), and it enveloped me completely in Italy. I can't write about how it felt to be there without the time story, even though I'm not sure that anyone else knows that feeling.
Becky has written about some of our experiences in Italy, and reading her writing takes me right back. Rather than follow her chronological approach, though, I think I'm going to write about my Italian Moments, the experiences that changed me, taught me something, brought me wonder or newness or understanding. The small-ish stories within the larger one of a week in a foreign country that, when the general details fade, will remain vivid.
The day we first arrived in Italy, Becky and I had planned on jumping on a train (our hotel was just down the street from the Rome Termini train station) to the coast, because how could we be so close to the sea—a sea we'd never been to!—and miss it? But when we arrived at our hotel (after a ride from the airport on a bus with a tour guide that told us the history of many of the places we passed), there was a mix up with when we could check in, and a delay, and by the time we'd sorted everything out, found (and figured out!) an ATM for some Euros, and eaten (a pizza which was its own Italian Moment), we didn't have enough time. Some of the other people in our tour group went up to their rooms to rest before dinner, but I was having none of that. I can rest at home, but who knows when I'll be in Rome again? So Becky, my mom, and I decided to explore a little bit.
During our bus ride to the hotel, the tour guide had pointed out the historical city walls, the ancient ruins of baths and Roman towers, many churches, an obelisk or two. But the building that grabbed my imagination immediately was the one that used to be a the Baths of Diocletian but was remodeled into a basilica after a priest had a vision of angels in the ruins. Remodeled into a church by Michelangelo. If that isn't a place that would be full of time stories (first a campo, then a Roman bath, then a ruin, then a church), then no such place exists. But I had no idea where, in all those stories told by the tour guide, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs was.
So when we wandered up the street and around a few corners, and I could see a seemingly-ruin in the distance, I wanted to go that way, just in case, and then I sort-of happy danced because there it was, the very basilica I wanted to go inside. To get there, we walked down a sidewalk with chain link fencing, and old grass and crumbled walls on the other side.
_MG_9738 mary and the martyrs 4x6 outside
Being me, I didn't just want to go inside the church, I also wanted to wander in those ruins, which looked like the old grounds of the church. I didn't get to, but that is OK because I did get to go inside the church.
To enter, you go through one of two doors, which look like this one and are set in the austere and ancient brick wall:
_MG_9743 mary and martyrs door 4x6
Here is an alternate view of the doors. I think they are beautiful, the way the image melds into the metal. They aren't old—they were installed in 2006—but I didn't know that when I saw them. They are nearly a physical representation of my idea of the time story, characters nearly visible but fading into the past.
_MG_9742 mary and martyrs outside doors 4x6
October days in Rome aren't scorching hot. But the church still felt comfortably cool. With my very limited traveling experience, I had no idea of what to expect, especially since Mormon churches—the staple of my life—are so very utilitarian. Functional, but not especially beautiful. This church was something completely different. Contrast, in fact, felt like the point of the experience: the contrast between the just-barely-muggy smog of Rome and the clear, cool air inside the church, and also that between its entrance and its interior. From the outside—the only church I experienced that didn't have an impresssive facade—it just looks like a ruin. So you'd never know, unless you went inside, what it held:
_MG_9744 mary and martyrs inside 4x6
(Photographing churches is hard. All those different light sources! I didn't do it very well.) 
Marble and other stone columns and facades. Statues of angels.
_MG_9745 mary and martyrs angel 4x6
Reliquaries, paintings, cathedral ceilings. An enormous pipe organ. The Meridian Line, which is a sun dial. And everywhere, that light. Hushed voices. This stained glass window, whose purple hues I tried to capture in a photograph but failed miserably:
_MG_9754 mary and martyrs stained glass
That window. I stood and looked at it forever. To me, it was the thing that made the basilica feel the way it felt, a sacred space lit by colored light.  
Someone clever on our tour said something about being tired of seeing churches. I confess, though, that I didn't ever get tired of seeing them—mostly because I hoped each one would replicate the feeling I had upon walking into the Angels and the Martyrs. Maybe it's impossible to replicate, though, because I never felt it exactly that way again. It was a rush of all things combined: the beauty, the light, the colors, the images, and the layers of time stories. How many people have prayed there and found answers or resolutions or just a lingering feeling of peace? How many stories. This was mine: as I stood in the center, looking at the lavender stained-glass window, I thought about my Mormon faith. Of the questions and doubts I have, and of the sureties as well. I thought about the funeral I went to the month before, in my father's childhood church, and of what I wish my church could give me but doesn't. I thought about how it feels to know something is true, even when that truth really is unknowable.
About what creates the manifestation of the spirit.
Becky always says that if she wasn't a Mormon she'd be a Catholic. (My response is always, "I'd be a pagan witch," which is only half-joking.) I didn't understand that until I stood inside my first renaissance church. The art and the images and the beauty and the statuary: I think my church sees that as a sort of false worshiping. As if to have art in a church means we would be appreciating the art or the artist instead of the spirit. In excess, I understand this (especially after touring St. Peter's Basilica). But how it seemed to me in that moment that what the beauty inside the church did was to facilitate—to make it easier for me to feel an outrushing of the spirit. Not based on scripture or sermon but just on pure, ethereal emotion. Not the contrast between religions, but the similarities, the truths they each hold.
We explored every inch of that church. There was even a small courtyard we could enter. It had a statue of Galileo and this little grouping of Christ, Mary, and Joseph:
_MG_9761 mary and martyrs courtyard 4x6
(I'm not sure what I loved most: the pattern on the floor, or the lettering on the sign.)
I didn't really want to leave, in fact, because I didn't want to lose how it felt. We did, eventually, leave. We admired the Piazza della Repubblica (which is just outside the church), walked past the opera house, and roamed around Rome.
IMG_9777 becky in rome 4x6
I loved walking around a city i didn't know, especially Rome, which seemed to have art and architecture and beauty around every corner. (I need to ask Becky if she has any pictures of me that day.)
We ended up at the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica:
IMG_9779 maria magiori back side
That photo is the back side of the Maggiore basilica. Is it odd that the back was my favorite part? I wanted to climb the steps, but they were fenced off. It was a beautiful church, with an amazing stained glass window depicting Mary holding the infant Christ. Maybe I was too tired to appreciate it, but it didn't hold the same feeling.  
Maybe no other church can compare to your first basilica in Rome. But I will never forget how it felt to walk inside Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. Not just for the feelings that I had and the questions that came to me, but for the first inklings of an understanding about religion and truth and how, perhaps, we are all just fumbling around in the spiritual level, wanting to know, wanting to understand something that will always be larger than what we can know or understand.
It was a serendipitous first Italian Moment for me.