Florence: [not] studying abroad.

What a whirlwind these past few weeks have been. I have a backload of numerous posts waiting to be published but this one is fresh and worth updating you on now. I just got back from Florence.

When I was a student at Benedictine College I never considered their Italian study abroad program because it was not compatible with my efforts to graduate in 3 years. Hearing people talk about it and seeing pictures was enough for me, but I always envied the experience of learning and partying abroad with so many of your friends. So as I was solidifying plans to live in Germany and found out that some of my closest friends would be in Florence, we all got super excited about the possibility of meeting up in Europe. Needless to say, when I finally made it onto campus Saturday morning, I felt a certain sense of triumph for having made it to “Benedictine’s Florence Program” without paying the college a dime for it. Sorry, I didn’t take a picture though.

I came the weekend of finals. Yes. Yes I did. Most of my friends had decided to spend their last Saturday in town and study Sunday, so, shortly after arriving we hopped on a bus and rode into Florence. I was thrilled simply to be walking around a foreign place with friends. As much as I’m enjoying my life in Europe, it can get a bit lonely walking around everywhere by yourself. I was a bit excited. We were walking to the Piazza de Michelangelo to watch the sun set over the city. Mid-conversation I freaked out a bit because we walked into this:image

Now I think that history, art, and art history are all valuable subjects for us all to learn. However, much of those subjects don’t really stick because we see images on a screen while we hear stories abstracted from our senses. Florence is at the heart of Renaissance art and history, and it explodes with beauty and knowledge that you ought to know. I constantly felt as though I should know something about this thing I was seeing or this person to whom the Piazza, Palace, or Church was dedicated to, but it was all quite fuzzy. I’m tempted to advise you never to take an art history class unless you’re in Europe, because everything makes so much more sense. Case and Point: The Duomo. The freakin Duomo.

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The baptistry (that I didn’t take pictures of, oops) is across from this main entrance. It’s  an octagonal structure as wide as the front of the cathedral and as tall as the left-hand column in the pictures above. Baptistry is just what it sounds like- where people were baptized. A massive baptismal font. More like baptismal font-church. The newly baptized would then walk from the baptismal font-building across the street/square and through the front doors into the Church. This is the Santa Maria Cathedral: the newly baptized members of the Church were literally walking into the Church, the bride of Christ, under the magnificent watch of Mary Christ’s mother. The symbolism is chillingly awesome. The Duomo is famous for many things, one being that the Dome wasn’t constructed for some time, not because they had no resources but because they actually didn’t know how. The architect believed that one day, humans would have figured out how to build something this great, and so he left it unfinished until such a day came. I think I learned that in a class one time. I know I forgot it until the dome was being explained to me this weekend and suddenly that story made sense. Welcome to Florence.

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Destination: Here’s the view from the Piazza de Michelangelo. Bit dark. But helllllooo Italy.

In a blog I haven’t yet posted I rant about the Church in Germany. All of Europe is suffering from a heartbreaking amount of complacency and dwindling faithful. You’ll be able to read more on that later. But if we profess to have truth, the truth will never fade. I was given new life in meeting a group of young people who are working to keep their faith alive, and I was given the opportunity to do some street ministry in Florence. My friends on campus have been involved to varying degrees in outreach with a local group. This particular night we were having adoration in a Church (right on the main road, as all Churches in Europe) and standing outside inviting people to come inside. Who does that?? I can tell the first thing you’d think was “no thank you.” “That’s weird.” “don’t wanna be THAT Catholic.” But let me tell you, the most common comment I hear from the agnostics around here is that there’s no reason to have this faith that does nothing. I think in general the Church is full of people who want to believe in something, but they don’t want partial things. Especially as Americans, we want the biggest and the best, and nothing less. Problem is, it’s hard to find religious people whose lives are really that much different than anyone else. To walk out in the street and invite someone to take a peek at Christ is weird because no one does that- but we ought to. Not because we have anything to sell, but because he is desperate for hearts and no one is being invited. I’m using a lot of universals in this story… so it probably comes across as a bit more dramatic than need be. Nevertheless the fact remains that young people invited those walking the streets of Florence to walk into a Church to say a quick prayer. I can’t believe I was there, but I was, and with the awkwardness behind me, I am even more convinced that love is multiplied and energized when shared.

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I spent Sunday walking around Florence and exploring on my own. I at Gelato. I walked the oldest bridge where gold jewelry is sold. I listened to street musicians. I ate more gelato. Everyone else studied. I did not study. Life was good. I was exhausted at the end of the day.

The next day I stayed close; stayed in the town of Settignano and walked through an olive grove. I just sat here for a while, prayed, journaled, and appreciated the fact that I was in Italy. Sometimes that sneaks up on you, you know. Sometimes I forget where I am on earth and the remembrance can be pretty startling.

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Sunset from Campus.

Some of the things I did were probably not allowed. I’m always cautious where I leave those stories lying, and the immortal internet is not one of those places, so I’ll leave those stories to be told in person. Needless to say it was a good weekend. Monday after everyone finished their semester and in shock joyfully celebrated, they had a giant party. I was honored to be welcomed into the whole weekend. Even though I’m friends with most of these people, there’s something special about spending an entire semester in a foreign country together, and I was definitely not a part of that journey. But I felt right at home and much fun was had. I enjoyed being able to hear their stories via the videos played and the stories told throughout the night. The dance party in the basement cave was pretty sweet too.

My final day there was a bit unexpected, but I couldn’t get a train home any earlier than 10pm so I ended up with an extra day with my friends. Bummer. I joined two of my close friends back in the city and we went to the Uffizi museum. This is the museum that houses works by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Caravaggio, and Botticelli. Were I got to see the original “Birth of Venus,” Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation,” and Bellini’s “Sacred Allegory.” The museum, typically packed with people, was very pleasant to walk through due to the presence of Pope Francis at the Duomo, who we chose not to see. 😀 Most everyone else went to the papal mass, but the 3 of us saw him up close and personal as we tried to navigate our way through closed roads and stumbled upon him driving by. Life can be convenient like that sometimes.

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I didn’t actually take a picture of Pope Frances, but he was so so close. I apologize, this post is probably full of things you don’t care about seeing and void of all things you wish I had taken pictures of. Sorry. This is the road who’s few rows of Italians we were walking by when the crowd erupted as the Pope approached. I just thought it was a great Italian moment, because of the old Italian man standing in his window aaalllllll the way up there in the top right corner.

The most difficult part of this trip for me was the Italian language. I speak Spanish, which was kind of helpful: but it is similar, not the same as Italian. After having been immersed in Germany for a month and a half, I didn’t realize how much I’d learned until I tried speaking Spanish and German came out instead. Or I couldn’t think of the words. What ended up happening was either a mixture of German, English, and Spanish mixed with the little Italian I do know, or I would just not be able to talk because I couldn’t remember how to say anything in any language. Needless to say, I was surprised at how happy I became when I boarded my train back and was spoken to in German.  I was so relieved to be able to answer in a language I did know- which besides being comically ridiculous, is a positive mark of progress for me.

That is probably the only other thing worthy of note: my 12 hour train ride to and from Florence. This train ride crossed the Italian border to Austria, into Germany. I live so close to the border that there’s a tent sent up off the road we take to and from Austria to give shelter to refugees who are waiting to cross from Austria to Germany. Imagine being a refugee on a train. This immigration/refugee situation is real. There’s police at every station, and there’s people from many nations on the public transportation. Not that I’ve been amidst any sort of crowd like they show you on TV, but I rode down to Florence with a bunch of Pakistani men who, while they were young and traveling, explained to me where many of the other people walking around were from: Syria, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. On the way back I road with a very, VERY talkative but also intelligent man from Ghana, who had no papers with him. Over the course of the weekend I got to know an American, some Italians, a German, some Pakistanis, an African, and a Moroccan. I learned 2 things from those train rides: 1, that I will never get tired of being stuck in a train car with a bunch of strangers for hours on end, because we are relational beings! and It’s absolutely fabulous getting to know other humans. 2, the refugee issue is quite real where I am.

(This post was written before the Paris bombings but published after. I am apprehensive of a renewed amount of racial profiling of anyone Arab, and would like to subtly remind us to avoid that. To me, my trip is a great example of a case where I was stuck on a train with several Arab, muslim men, who I could have easily avoided and even become very uncomfortable around. However I was able to enjoy their good company and much laughter was had during those hours because we related to each other without fear).

Well, that’s about it. Here’s a few more pictures for you to enjoy:

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“I could get used to a view like this. Yep, I’m used to it. Guys, I want a castle” (name that movie)

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