Monday, July 25, 2016

Dolce / Language Regression, A Little Understanding of Michelangelo's Genius, and the Social Contract

Vei dei bardi (Street of the Poets), near Ponte Vecchio
I had good days and bad days in the classroom this week, and experienced a phenomenon known as language regression, something that I remember happened to me when I was in a Spanish immersion program. When you’re rapidly learning a new language as an adult, it is common to reach a point in which your struggle to take on board the new things you’re learning causes you to make mistakes in areas you’ve previously learned (and thought you’d mastered), giving you the impression that you’re actually getting worse, which is extremely frustrating. I caught myself thinking a couple of times this week, “Well, this is just a really bad day. I’m not speaking any more Italian in here today.” But within about thirty seconds I would tell myself, “Hey, dummy, if you don’t speak badly today then you’re just postponing your chance to get better.” And I dusted myself off and kept going.

We had a couple of afternoon classes on art this week, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more about Michelangelo. I want to tell you briefly a couple of things I’ve discovered about a couple of his most well-known works, La Pietà and David.
La Pietà - Michelangelo - 1497-1500
He did La Pietà early in his career, when he was about 25. When you see it, you’re struck by how lifelike it is. This is one of the many depictions in Renaissance religious art of “the deposition,” the moment when Christ was taken down from the cross. In la Pietà, Christ’s flesh and skin and muscles look so real you have to remind yourself that these are actually carved from marble. Michelangelo studied cadavers and had extensive knowledge about how the muscles, tendons, veins and skin really looked and he went for maximum realism in his work. But the longer you look at and study the beautiful work, you start to pick up some things that are not realistic. Mary appears to be impossibly young. Their heads are just about level with Jesus’ body arrayed across Mary’s lap, so she is actually much larger than Jesus and if they were both standing she would tower over him. Mary supports Jesus’ upper body with only her right hand, a very difficult feat given the angle of her upper body and the weight of the lifeless body of Christ. The nail wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, as well as the spear wound in his side, are very small, minimal, and almost imperceptible. All these factors make Michelangelo more of an artist than a technician. He is intentional in these apparent lacks of realism. Mary’s youth reflects her purity and chastity and the minimization of Christ’s wounds are the result of a decision to deemphasize the brutality of the crucifixion in order to emphasize the calm, restful satisfaction in having completed the post painful part of the redemptive work.  
David - Michelangelo - 1501-1504
The David was originally commissioned to go on top of a building and that’s why it’s so large, over seventeen feet tall. It was deemed too good to go way on top of a building, so it is displayed at ground level. Even after you see the copy of the statue in the Piazza Signoria, the real David statue is incredibly impactful when you see it in person. The muscles and veins and symmetry of the body gives you the impression that he will load and fire his slingshot while you are watching. But upon careful examination you can tell that the right arm and hand are impossibly hyper-developed, conveying the empowerment of God in his battle against the Giant. A few other notable David statues had been done before Michelangelo’s, but they tended to show David posing with Goliath’s head after he had defeated and killed him. Michelangelo’s David is pre-battle, and David’s calm but determined focus in the moment before he kills the giant is, to me, a remarkable commentary on faith. Again, in the same way that the poet plays with the relationship between signifier and signified in language to establish her or his own rules of language (Juliet is not really the sun, but Shakespeare makes it so), Michelangelo bends the laws of physics in both the Pietà and the David for poetic effect.

Something that occurred to me today looking at the works is the fact that because Michelangelo’s ability to faithfully, breathtakingly depict the human form in marble is so perfect, you as the viewer accept the reality of the whole presentation: that Mary really looked that young at 47 or 48 years of age, that she could really support Christ’s lifeless body like that, that she could have the look of calm resignation on her face instead of abject sorrow, that David’s right arm and hand really looked like that, and that he was totally fearless as he loaded his slingshot. The technique strikes me as incredibly subtle, sophisticated and effective. The overwhelming truth of the accuracy of the depiction of the human form makes you excuse the parts of the work that are, well, only poetically true.

When classes ended on Friday I went and rented a bike again to go out and train and sightsee. The bike was really nice, a Colgnago c50 with smooth-shifting Campagnolo Chorus shifters and Mavic Cosmic Carbone wheels. The only problem was that it had a full-grown 53/39 crankset and an 11-25 freewheel cassette, definitely not good gearing for an old heavy guy (maybe not real good for anyone) on the hills around Tuscany. I spent a lot of time in my absolute easiest gear just grinding myself into muscle failure on the steepest hills on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday I looked for the flattest route I could find, which paralleled the Arno River for several miles until I turned inland and ground myself into oblivion going up one of the last hills toward Pontassieve. I only rode about half the miles I had intended, but I did wear myself out pretty well, had no accidents or flats, and saw some really beautiful countryside.
I took it really easy on the downhills, many of them so steep I feared for my ability to stop my bike. To have an accident back home where I can grab the cell and call a family member to come get me and go to a hospital where my insurance will work is one thing, but to have a serious accident here would be an unmitigated disaster, even though I’m sure the quality of medical care is probably every bit as good or better.

I sometimes feel safer riding a bike here than walking, especially when I have to cross the street. There are crosswalks here, but only about 30% of the cars will stop for you, even when you’re standing right in the crosswalk showing signs of wanting to cross. It’s like a game of chicken: "Does he see me? Does he not see me? Is he slowing down? Will he stop if I just step on out there?" And because not all the cars stop, some of the ones that do stop risk getting rear-ended by cars galloping up behind them with no intention of stopping for some poor sap in the crosswalk. As a pedestrian, since you don’t feel any real consistent protection in the crosswalk, you’ll cross anywhere it seems marginally and temporarily safe, which results in less predictability for drivers. There are rules here that seem to be universally ignored. I live near a traffic circle with cool little butcher shops, delicatessens, and pastry shops lining the street. People driving home will just pull their cars over at the edge of the traffic circle and get out and go buy what they need. Some afternoons cars will be illegally parked three deep so that drivers trying to exit the circle have to zig zag through an obstacle course. Of course, no traffic enforcement or police in sight.

Another disconnect between the ideal and the real: Firenze has a really advanced garbage disposal system where you’re encouraged (required, really) to sort out your recycling from your wet kitchen garbage (which I think is a great idea). At the corner there are containers to dispose of your glass, your paper, your plastic, your organic waste, and your wet trash that you can’t (or won’t) separate. The final category, the undifferentiated trash, is the only container with a lock on it. Every homeowner in the neighborhood is theoretically issued a key to the undifferentiated trash, which has a fairly small opening on it. There may be a limited number of uses per key, I don’t know, because I’ve been here nearly six weeks now and the owners haven’t given me a key to the trash. They tell me they’ve asked for it and it hasn’t been issued to them by the city government. So I sort the trash as best I can and lay my undifferentiated trash next to the locked dumpster, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. Well, I’m not the only one who does that, because there are typically dozens of bags of undifferentiated trash next to the container. So, in a nice neighborhood in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, next to a color-coded system of small dumpsters that probably cost millions of dollars city-wide, lie piles of trash for days on end because local government can’t or won’t issue the keys to the homeowners. The trash, like the three-deep illegal parking, like the drivers who won’t stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, are stark examples of breakdowns in the social contract, which I know happens in all countries to one degree or another. Shoot, there are very few crosswalks at all where I live, even in places that badly need them, and I’m pretty sure Bubba in his Dodge Ram will run you over there, too.  

Interestingly, the city of Firenze has taken a hard line in enforcing at least one law. To crack down on scofflaws who ride the city buses without paying, ticket checkers routinely board the bus and check to see if you have a validated bus ticket, which costs a little over one Euro (little more than a dollar) per trip. I generally get checked twice a week and I’ve even been checked by two different crews on the same trip. If they catch you riding the bus without a ticket, it’s a pretty serious fine: about 250 Euros (probably $270). I have no problem with the need to have a bus ticket. These are nice buses and they provide a valuable service and we who use them should pay for their operation. But who do they catch in these checks? Tourists, according to my unscientific observation. About 90% of the people they catch riding the bus without a validated ticket (that I've seen, anyway) are tourists who can’t figure out the system for buying a bus ticket (or don’t know there is a system) and just decide to climb on and hope for the best.

So that’s how it goes, even in the birthplace of the Renaissance: impunity for insiders and punishment for outsiders.     


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Formaggio e frutta / Adventures with the GPS in Italian

This week featured an out and back work trip to the beautiful city of Urbino on the other side of the Apennine mountains, some bike training, and "international problem solving."

After a frustrating plateau for a little while, I believe my speaking ability hit a little upswing this week. I’m able to conduct business around town (and in my 90 minute meeting in Urbino) in Italian, and routine phrases are coming out smoother and less mistake-ridden. Since Margaret went back to the States on Tuesday, it's less fun here, but the upside is that I’m able to surround myself with more Italian language and that’s bound to help.

The purpose of my trip to Urbino was to check out a Study Abroad opportunity for our voice music majors at Ouachita Baptist University. I reserved a car online, this time near downtown and not out by the airport (saved myself 3 bus rides) and left class early on the 13th to go pick up the car and drive the three hours over the mountains to make a 4 pm meeting in Urbino. The infinitive verb “to reserve” in Italian is prenotare, but in fact, a reservation in most parts of Italy seems to me to be totally meaningless. I found the car rental place, walked in and told them I had a car reserved. I even had a confirmation number. Neither thing meant anything to this company. “Well, where’s your printed copy of your voucher?” the employee asked. Now, I’ve rented many cars over the past 30 years or so in places as far flung as Spain, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and even Italy twice before. I’ve never had to hand over a printed-off proof of reservation. To make a long story short, the rental process took longer than it took us to refinance the mortgage on our house in Miami. By the time I got the car, a Fiat 500, I knew I would barely make it to the meeting if everything went right. I plugged my phone into the car, pulled up the GPS for the instructions for how to get back to the apartment (I had to pick up something on the way out of town), and when I got going, the Google Maps voice commands were in Italian, which freaked me out for the first few turns. I was already frazzled trying to manage the unfamiliar car (it took me about 8 minutes to figure out how to roll down the window to insert the ticket in the machine to be let out of the parking garage). I eventually made the drive to the apartment, over the mountains to Urbino (sometimes driving up one-lane roads so steep I had to gear down to 1st), had an excellent meeting with the folks over there, and made it back to Firenze by a little after 9 pm. The last hurdle was figuring out how to work the gas pumps to refuel the car, which I finally did. I got home exhausted but content, feeling like I had just led the Raid on Entebbe.    

Part of the international experience (if you’re not being led around by a tour guide) is that just about everything, not just language but systematically everything, is different from what you’re used to. So you feel foolish and inadequate while you stand there looking at a machine (like the gas pump at this self-service station) like a pig looking at a wristwatch, but when you solve it you feel awesome except for your sweaty armpits. I’ve tried to improve my approach to problem solving here. I’ve tended to treat it like problem solving at Navy SCUBA School, where you would swim around on the bottom of the pool and the instructors would rip your mask off and take away your regulator and shut off your air and even steal your tanks if they could. You had as much time to solve your problem as your breath hold would allow. But international problem solving shouldn't be treated that way. Just be calm. Ask someone for help. Step out of line and watch someone else do it. Take your time. You’re not splitting the atom or delivering fire to mankind.   

Urbino is not as big as Firenze, but it is absolutely beautiful. It’s a college town, with students outnumbering residents 14,000 to 12,000. The cathedral, like several of the ones in Firenze, has a dome, which I’ve found out signified eternal life in the early Church. 
The school in Urbino teaches Italian language and voice to music students. They have language classes in the morning and voice lessons in the afternoon for three weeks. At the end of the program they give a concert in this beautiful street side venue believed to be the spot used for the backdrop for the Piero della Francesca painting “The Flagellation of Christ” from 1452.

Since Margaret is gone, I rented a road bike for some excursions and training around Tuscany. I reserved a bike online and even got confirmation from the manager that I was all set. When I arrived Friday afternoon, you guessed it, the guy working there was stunned to see me. He had no knowledge of my reservation, so, of course there was no bike ready. I told him I needed a 56 or 57 cm frame. He had no idea what size any of his bikes where. We pulled one down that looked like it would work. Just about everything that could have been out of adjustment on the bike was out of adjustment. Do you have a work stand we can put the bike on so I can adjust it? “No.” I knew I had some tools back at the apartment, so I took the bike and paid the guy and off I went. When I brought the bike back at the end of the weekend to turn it in, the original guy who took my reservation was there, and I told him about all the adjustments I had to make to the bike to make it rideable. He offered me a job. I told him he couldn't afford me and we had a good laugh. Some things you just have to laugh about. We're a long way from the land of "The customer is always right."

I would up using my cell phone’s GPS with the voice commands and riding with one earbud in so I could navigate the byzantine road network through the Chianti region. I had some great rides and saw some fabulous scenery,

but after a month off the bike I’m out of riding shape and my “bike seat contact region” has lost its toughness. Speaking of toughness, the riding here is very, very hilly. It seemed like it was just one steep hill after another, with the curviness of the narrow roads making it necessary to brake a lot on the downhills, robbing you of the momentum you paid so dearly for on the climbs. There are no shoulders but drivers are accustomed to sharing the road. It was harrowing to deal with cars passing so closely, but I got used to it by Sunday. And through about 125 miles through the countryside this weekend, how many dogs chased me? Not. A. Single. One. Oh, I saw and heard dogs, but they were inside fences.

I’m looking at you, Arkansas.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Week 4 in Firenze/ Insalata

Being back in a classroom for six weeks gives me a chance to re-live the student experience. This week I had a chance to think extensively about student engagement and correcting mistakes. The first time we ever had class with the lecturer on Italian music he asked me in front of the whole class why I was studying Italian. I don’t think he asked anyone else that question, which seemed (and seems) strange to me. It seemed like, “Explain yourself,” which I don’t generally feel compelled to do about just about anything. My answer, “Because I like the language,” probably didn’t qualify me as a sufficiently serious student for him, because since that day, he has never engaged me visually in the class while he is lecturing. It’s not like he’s reading from notes or something. He visually engages the other students, but he seems to be intentional in avoiding looking at me. I think I'll change seats to the middle of the class and ask some questions and see if that changes anything. And the next time someone asks me why I’m here studying Italian, I'll say, “I’ve always wanted to read the Divina Commedia in the original language.” 

Another aspect I had an opportunity to review was the correction of mistakes, which is crucial in language learning. I realized that my grammar prof, the guy I have for most of the school day, does a good job of correcting my mistakes in class. He will generally not interrupt me (unless I use a Spanish word thinking it's Italian), but will let me finish and then say something like, “Be careful in using this phrase” and he will sometimes write out the correct construction on the board. And tone of voice and facial expression is everything here. This is a critical point because the professor can’t just let students make grammatical or semantic mistakes and think they’re getting it right, but you don’t want to damage the student’s willingness to speak in class. It’s more than worrying about others’ feelings. It’s establishing an environment for effective learning, which may be the same thing.

Obviously, learning environments extend beyond the classroom. The bus stop, the grocery store, and the sidewalk café are all places to listen, watch and learn. One of those place here is the Bar/Tabachi, where you can buy everything from bus tickets to cigarettes to coffee.

They seem to be open about 20 hours a day with the same people working behind the counter. When I get to my bus stop, if the little marquee sign that shows arrival times tells me my bus is more than 6 minutes away, I sometimes walk three doors down to the nearest bar/tabachi for a coffee. If you just order “un caffè” in Tuscany (maybe anywhere in Italy) it will be espresso, which seems like a thimbleful of very concentrated coffee. My espresso is set before me and I open the little sugar package that it comes with and put in about 1/3 of the sugar. For the remaining five minutes until my bus comes, I stir and sip my espresso and look around at what my professor calls “La fauna,” the Italian people. Everyone is standing around the bar or possibly sitting on a stool if there is room, which there may not be since these places seem to be about eleven feet wide and 40 feet long. The place will be loud if there are more than two people in there. It seems like a lot of people in there know each other, and at least one Fiorentino will be accompanied by her/his leashed dog. I can catch stray words and broad subjects while conversation pours back and forth across the bar, but the words are too thick and fast for me to make out more than general meaning. The conversations between Italians seem to have a certain musicality that I always enjoy, and in class this week I found out why. Some differences in words are based on whether they have two consonants or one. Take “belo” and “bello,” for example. “Belo” is a real word in Italian, it’s the equivalent of the “bleat” that a sheep or goat makes. “Bello,” you probably already know, is some beautiful thing with a masculine gender. “Dona” is the 3rd person singular of the verb “donare” (to donate), but a woman is a “donna,” so when an Italian says “donna” it seems like they’re saying, “She’s some kinda woman” because in Italian, you have to linger on those two consonants, which for me, seems to exaggerate and dramatize the whole word. All the standard Italian gestures are employed to full effect in the social hotbox of the bar / tabachi. 

The barista’s hands will fly out and back to punctuate a sentence between cleaning and filling the small metal basket on the expresso machine. At least in Tuscany, Italians really do use the standard greetings we’re taught from the first day in Italian: “Salve,” “Ciao,” “Arrivederci,” and “Buongiorno” and friends will effusively greet and kiss each other on the street. They are also gracious, freely using the “Grazie” and “Prego” that you learn when you take your first steps into the language.   

Margaret and I did some serious touristing this week since this is her last weekend in Firenze. Saturday we toured a small museum with some works of Masaccio, an Italian painter who lived at the beginning of the 1400’s. He died at age 26, but is credited for helping to usher in the Renaissance with his perspectivism and realism. 
We later went to a beautiful castle near Poppi designed in the 1100’s by Arnolfo di Cambio, the same architect credited with designing the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze. It was a great daytrip that required about 3 hours on a small bus/large van, but it pretty much wore us out. For a while I thought that driving in Italy just seemed dangerous to me but that Italians somehow just manage it safely, but I now think I’m wrong. Italians have a lot of wrecks on the narrow, twisting roads in the Tuscan hills, and you’ll see many, many cars with wrinkled fenders and dimpled doors. We had a couple of close calls in the van, and we even witnessed an incident of road rage between our driver and the driver of a sedan who cut us off and then totally stopped in front of us. I would rate an 8/10 for intensity and expressiveness.   

Earlier in the week, on Thursday, we went to the opera at a local church near the Arno River. The opera was kind of a small-scale, intimate production of Verdi’s La Traviata. We were all right up close to the performers, which was really special. These opera singers are like vocal athletes, and you get a real appreciation for their talent when you see and hear them up close. It was a hot day, though, and it continued to be hot in the evening. At the risk of sounding like a big spoiled gringo, I’ll tell you it was oppressively hot in this beautiful historic church where there’s no A/C and they’re not just going to set out a bunch of fans. I thought we would cool off after sitting there for a while, but nothing doing. Just out of curiosity I took off my Suunto watch and set it in the chair back in front of me for about ten minutes to get an accurate reading of the temperature. Midway through the second act it was still 84 degrees Fahrenheit . . . no air moving . . . all of us mashed into this church together. I really felt bad for the singers, who were dressed in period costumes. The baritone mopped his brow like a country preacher but the soprano, who was really physically expressive and sang more than anybody, never got beyond a kind of glow. Women really are the stronger gender. Some of my fellow opera-goers appeared to be from somewhere in Southeast Asia and even they were fanning themselves and looking at each other like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I half-expected that IV’s would be administered during the intermission. Margaret and I bought a cold bottle of water and took turns holding it against our foreheads. Well, nobody said that culture was easy. The opera was still great and I will go again, but I might pack myself in ice first.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Secondo Piatto e contorno / In Praise of the Beautiful and the Mundane

The fresco near my bus stop that I didn't notice
my first 2 weeks here.
We got deep in grammar this week in class: the passato remoto verbal tense and the subjunctive mood. Passato remoto is a past tense that Italians rarely use when speaking, but it is used all the time in news articles, historical accounts and even children’s books. Subjunctive feels like an old friend, used very similarly to the way it is in Spanish. Conceptually, I understand both of these very well, but am not smooth with coming up with the correct conjugations of the verbs. What has made me happy this week has been that my comprehension and speaking ability, the two last language abilities to fall into place, are getting much stronger. Language experts have written that speaking will not come on line until comprehension starts to solidify and I believe this is true. Before coming to Italy I would listen to an Italian podcast that was largely incomprehensible, but listening to them this week, I was able to understand nearly all of them.

The short afternoon sessions at school, great exercises in themselves for listening comprehension, are on culture, history, art, etc., mostly centered on Firenze itself and this week I heard something that really made me stop and think. Firenze in the late 1400’s and 1500’s, under the sponsorship of the Medici family (most notably Cosimo and Lorenzo) became a great patron and protector of the arts.
Lorenzo Medici was not called "Il Magnifico" for his good looks
 One result was this beautiful city which has been described as an open-air museum. Most of the buildings are works of art in themselves. I’ll be waiting at the bus stop and just casually look up and see a fresco, faded but still beautiful, that must be many centuries old, on the wall of a building that now houses a coffee shop. People in charge at the time made a decision to make things not only practical, but as beautiful as they could. The Medici's had a financial interest in works of art, and used them to build social and economic capital, but they were also passionate art aficionados. And the Medici's, described as deeply Catholic, were also very free in their consideration of what beauty could be depicted. Botticelli painted nude representations of goddesses in addition to many Christian religious paintings. 

Botticelli's Birth of Venus 1480's
Michelangelo was famously intentional about painting and sculpting nude subjects, not for the viewer’s erotic excitement, but rather as a pure expression of the beauty of the human created in God’s image.
Michelangelo's David 1501-1504
And out of this environment under the decades-long protection of the Medici family (with the exception of an interruption led by an fundamentalist priest named Savonarola), artists and inventors and thinkers like Machiavelli, Botticelli, di Vinci, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi produced great works nearly simultaneously in Firenze and helped pull the world out of the Middle Ages.

And they left us with this beautiful city. I may spend the rest of my life trying to understand the individual human impact of being in a place where long-lasting, tasteful, beauty is so intentional and so built into just about every street and structure. I find it very calming and reassuring to be in it every day. It makes me glad that the Medicis were not cheese merchants.

Margaret and I chose this weekend to rent a car and get away to the coast. Lots of times since we’ve been here, as I’ve been hoofing around in the heat or waiting in the sun to get on a crowded bus, I’ve thought, “I sure will be glad when we rent a car and I can drive us around.” Well, we did rent one and I soon after thought to myself, as Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.” Having your own wheels in Tuscany solves some problems and creates a lot more. Liability, navigation at high speeds, getting through toll booths, buying gas and parking were challenges that we had to work hard to overcome. Driving in Italy is just different and you can see the difference reflected in the geometry of personal space as you walk around the city. People are just accustomed to being very close to each other and that closeness is extended to vehicles on the road. As a result, it’s uncomfortable for us as we drive around thinking, “That scooter that just whipped around me is too close to me. That car that just whipped around me to fit itself into the safe following distance I was leaving between myself and the car in front of me is too close to me. That bus that just jammed its 30-foot self into this intersection is too close to all of us.” But you get used to it.

Figuring out all the systems: paying tolls, parking, operating the washers and driers at the laundromat, getting a shopping cart at the supermarket and operating the gas pumps is also a learning process. It’s not even a language thing. It’s a system thing. Most of the time there’s no language involved, just something like a metal leash that chains the shopping carts together, that it seems like everyone else but you can figure out. So, you either try to ask someone how to do it, or creepily watch over someone else's shoulder like a rhesus monkey as they do it, which is awkward and makes you feel stupid. But you take solace in the fact that once you’ve figured it out, it’s just one more thing you’ll know how to do next time.

One of the main things we wanted to do on our weekend getaway was to go to the beach, so this morning we got an early start and went out to Marina di Vecchiano.
I'm pretty sure that's a nerf dart and not a cigarette by Margaret's foot
We were hoping to beat the crowds, but we really didn’t. So you, dear reader, may be thinking, “Ah ha. The beach in Europe. Do tell.” Yes, there were a couple of topless women, but very few. And there were some dudes in Speedos, more than topless women, but they also seemed to be in the minority. It was crowded but pleasant, mostly families just enjoying the beach like anyone else in the world does. There were a lot of old folks, and, really just people of all ages, shapes and sizes. And it occurred to me that the beachgoing crowd there seemed to be a little more egalitarian than we are in the States. I think there are a lot of people who will just not go to the beach in the States, and many others who will only go to the beach wearing a giant t-shirt or cover-up, but that doesn’t seem to be the way it is for Italians (I estimate the crowd was 95% local folks). The attitude seemed to be, “Here I am, chillin’ at the beach. This is my body and I’m not going to cover it up much more than absolutely necessary. I’m OK with it.”

It strikes me as a very healthy attitude.

But don’t expect to see me in a Speedo at Lake DeGray, Arkansas.      

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Primo Piatto/ Language Athletes and an Unwanted Public Reading

This was a short school week since the celebration for the patron saint of Florence, San Giovanni, was on Friday. Friday night there were fireworks that we were able to see just over the top of Ponte Vecchio as a reward for muscling into a crowd of tourists and locals and holding our phones aloft while guarding our wallets from pickpockets. We also went to a beautiful concert of baroque music performed by a clavichord, flute and soprano. The concert was in the Santo Spirito church that overlooks one of the liveliest and less touristy piazzas in Florence. We always wondered why the front of the Santo Spirito church is so plain, but this week we discovered that Filippo Brunelleschi, the ingenious designer of the Duomo, was supposed to also build an elaborate façade of that church in the 1400’s and didn’t live long enough to do the project. The façade is left plain, apparently in homage to him. Occasionally, artists will design art that is projected on the front of the church at night.

This week we dug into tough grammar in my intermediate-advanced class. I understood more and more of what we worked on, but realized I still have a long way to go. We had a test over literature on Wednesday. I figured, “Hey, I’m here to participate in every possible thing and learn as much as I can” so I said, sure, I’ll take the test. On the afternoon of the test the school seemed to be empty. I went into the classroom where we had the culture and literature classes expecting a dozen or so students also preparing to take a written test. “You have to go to the office and sign up for the exam” I was told, so off I went to tell the secretary, Desiree, that I wanted to take the test. It turns out that the test was an oral exam (apparently the prof had announced it and I didn’t catch it) and there were only three of us, two Japanese girls and me, taking the test. I didn’t want to back out at that point since I had signed up, and I got smashed pretty flat, since my communications skills are still pretty rudimentary. Right now I can order a meal and ask about the bus with aplomb, but talk at length about renaissance Italian literature, not so much. I felt bad (ambushed, really), but I write it off to a learning experience. I remember feeling the same way early in my immersion experience in Spanish, being unable to communicate as well as I want to; not being able to speak any better than a small child. Jesus said we must accept the gospel with the faith of children, and I think language learning requires similar humility, the willingness to strip off your degrees, your professional and personal achievements and your stronger language(s) and take that naked walk of "incommunication."

After winning five NBA championship rings and a couple of Olympic gold medals, Michael Jordan subjected himself to a similar "stripping away" when he humbled himself to try to play major league baseball. He wound up in the minors, never playing beyond the AA level. I can imagine how he must have felt, riding the bus from game to game with the Birmingham Barons, willing to take several steps down the ladder to pursue a dream. His Achilles heel, his inability to hit the curve, kept him from ever being able to reach the majors and he eventually went back to basketball.

Thursday afternoon I sat down for a few minutes and talked to Muriel, a girl in my class from Chile. We immediately switched from Italian to Spanish, the more comfortable language for both of us. We talked for a good twenty minutes and it occurred to me that all of the complex constructions I more or less easily and smoothly used in Spanish with Muriel were totally out of reach for me when I was learning Spanish in the late 90’s. They took time and study and reading and practice, and I realized I will need to walk that same road with Italian to get to the same point. But I know how to get there. I’m a language athlete. The sport may be different, but I know how to train and complete. And no one will say, (like they didn’t say to Jordan), “Oh, you’re a Spanish professor, here’s an easy pitch you can hit over the fence.” They’ll throw me curves. And I, unlike Jordan, will get to the point where I can hit them. So the training continues.

Today Margaret and I solved the puzzle of the out-of-town bus system and traveled to Siena, a beautiful medieval city just about fifty miles from Florence. We saw beautiful cathedrals and fantastic architecture and breathtaking art and just enjoyed breaking another piece of the code of international travel together. I bought a skinny book in English on the history of Siena and was looking forward to reading it on the bus ride home. But the calm that I counted on for reading turned out to be illusory. The bus back to Florence was packed and we had the misfortune of sitting two rows up from a woman from Mississippi or Alabama. This well-heeled and well-cared for woman felt it appropriate to read out loud from a spiral notebook where she recorded, in excruciating detail, a journal of their trip that had started about ten days prior. Her friend was sitting right next to her, but this woman insisted on reading in a voice loud enough to make me think she intended for people in neighboring villages to hear as we passed. Only her own bowel movements escaped the faithful transcription of her activities. Everything else: the hour of waking, walking over a bridge, being picked up for transportation to the next tour, the food upon which she and her pampered friends dined, the bargains hunted for and procured, were faithfully recorded in longhand and now, proudly read for the edification of a busload of weary, sweaty people who alternately prayed to God that she would die of a stroke and thanked Him for every tunnel through we passed that darkened the bus too much for her to continue reading. She had been transported across an ocean to visit the Cradle of the Renaissance where humanity was pulled out of the Dark Ages, but her commentary was bereft of commentary on art, history and architecture, to make room for detailed overviews of how rubbery and tasteless the eggs at breakfast were, and where she got a good deal on a reversible genuine leather belt.

I guess we travel with different goals. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Antipasto / Week 1 in Firenze

The first week of Italian classes is done, and so far, so good. We took a test on the first day that put me between intermediate and intermediate/advanced, and after trying the two classes, I opted for intermediate/advanced. My professor is absolutely outstanding. He seems to know exactly what non-native Italian speakers need to work on and he targets those parts of the grammar. Today we worked on relative pronouns (one of the hardest things I had to learn in Spanish, which is curiously more straightforward in Italian). Yesterday we worked on double object pronouns, which I found very tricky. So, we're way beyond learning how to ask for coffee. If we have a question or it's apparent that we're weak on a more elementary part of the grammar, he'll go over that, too. He goes to the trouble to write stuff out on the blackboard and diagram things instead of just talking about them. I write notes as fast as I can for the whole grammar class. His style is pretty old-school (like me, I think). He will ask you direct questions or have another student ask you a question and require you to speak in front of everybody, obviously nerve-wracking, but it makes you much more engaged. It's not that he wants to embarrass anyone, he just knows that unless we speak a lot we'll never get better at speaking. Our section is pretty small, with people from Chile, Finland, Japan, Brazil and Ukraine and one other student and me from the U.S. We have grammar from 9 a.m. to noon, then some kind of a lecture on Italian theater, literature, or culture from 12:15 to 1:45. The first week you waste a lot of energy figuring out when to catch the bus, where the bathrooms are, where to get coffee, etc. I've gotten lost a couple of times and had an adventure with the coffee machine the first day. I dropped in 40 cents, selected cappuccino, saw the little cup drop, heard the liquid pour into the cup and pulled the cup out when I heard it stop. Then, to my dismay and embarrassment, I heard more liquid being dispensed, this time into the little drain on the machine and not into the cup I prematurely held in my hand. After a few seconds of that I heard a little bell go off. I looked into my cup at what was 100% steamed milk with no coffee. Now I know to leave the cup in the machine until I hear the bell.  
I live on the other side of town from school. Riding the bus takes about 30 minutes and fast walking with no stops for gelato or espresso takes about 40 minutes. In the mornings the bus is packed with people amp'd up to get to work. Day before yesterday a man and woman who appeared to be in their 60s got into a shouting match about giving each other room. The only thing I clearly understood had to do with respect. One thing I like about Firenze is that the bicycle is totally integrated into the transportation infrastructure here. There are few bike lanes, but bikes just ride wherever they need to. Nearly all of them are old and clearly made for city commuting like this one: 
Note that the brakes are activated by bars that are linked together, not cables. It's single speed with a chainguard and big comfy seat. The bike is preferred by many folks for commuting to work and running errands. 
They just weave in and out of the lines of cars and buses. No one honks at them or tries to pressure them off the road; they are simply treated as another vehicle as legitimate and valuable as any other. Some cyclists, like this lady, just wear regular comfortable clothes, but the bike is not off-limits for guys like these 

who are styling and profiling (for Italian men, styling and profiling is a 24/7 enterprise).    

Well, Margaret and I are having a great time, trying to see all the non-touristy sights and enjoying Firenze very much. My Italian is getting better at a rapid rate, and I look forward to learning more. Alla prossima settimana! Ciao!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Florence and Florencia: Becoming Firenze

with my boy Dante at the Piazza San Croce
After a full calendar day of traveling that put us in Italy some seven hours ahead of Arkansas time, we arrived to our temporary home in Florence, a lovely apartment near the Porta Romana. I have thought of this place in English as Florence for many years, learned it later as Florencia in Spanish, but if I do it right, it will become Firenze to me over the next six weeks.

My self-study on the language got me to the point where I could have some brief Q&A when I got off the plane with our point of contact here, Rudina in Italian. It was rough, though, and I felt the pressure of trying to communicate with a native speaker in their language while knowing I was making some mistakes at least in pronunciation. I was also able to navigate to and through the process of grocery shopping after we arrived. At one place I asked them what time they closed, but when I said, "a che ora chiude?" I made little double-door closing motions with my hands that made Margaret laugh. But they sang back "mezzanotte" (midnight) and the circle of communication in my new language was complete. But I want to get better, do more, say it smoother, understand it better. And I want to do it soon.

This morning we went to the Universita degli Studi Firenze to take a placement exam. The test was no joke, challenging right from the beginning. The instructions for the test, both written and oral, were totally in Italian. Even the part designed to test elementary reading comprehension required careful attention. The question would not simply repeat a fact or phrase from the previous reading that you could refer back to and winnow out, but would use different words to refer to the same concepts or statements. So you needed to comprehend several different words to have a chance to answer correctly; a sure sign of a tough language test. I got flattened in a section that required me to not only pick out the subject of a sentence and correctly conjugate the verb with it, but choose between two common helping verbs: essere (to be) and avere (to have) and figure out the verbal tense mainly between present, passato prossimo, imperfetto and (I think) passato remoto, the rules for which are different in Italian than in Spanish. I felt bad at that moment for all the students I've put through the same pain in Spanish: those moments where you wish you had studied something better, totally guess at the right answer and cobble together something you know will make the grader roll their eyes. I came out of the test somewhere between intermediate and intermediate-advanced. I'll probably start in intermediate and see how it goes.

Firenze is hot and touristy right now, and the adjustment to the way everything is different from home is in full swing. We are already loving it here, though, and will love it more when our sleep adjusts to the jet-lag.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Into the Wolf´s Mouth

The Duomo and Baptistry, Florence
I remember traveling in the mid-90’s, even before I learned Spanish, hearing the announcements over the loudspeaker during a layover in the Rome airport. They were probably just telling people not to park in the loading zone, but I was absolutely enraptured by the rhythm and musicality of the Italian language. And now here I am twenty years hence, preparing to travel to Italy to study Italian for six weeks, one of those fabulous things academics get to do a few times in a career. Six weeks in Florence (Margaret with me for the first month)? Are you kidding? Due cappuccini, per favore! It will be awesome. But (maybe as proof that I´m incapable of just enjoying something) I’ve put some pressure on myself in this endeavor by committing to come back and teach Elementary Italian in the fall.

At least two people inspired me to attempt to navigate this “learn to teach” process. One is Johnny Wink, my brilliant friend and colleague, polyglot, and locally world famous autodidact. Johnny never met a language he didn’t like, and routinely studies about six languages. He taught himself Latin and is now a great Latin teacher, treasured by generations of students.  

The other guy is Robert Anthony Siegel, the leader of my week-long writer’s workshop in Iowa City a few years ago. In addition to our main sessions in the mornings and afternoons, we’d have a lunch hour presentation on one theme or another. One of those presentations featured Robert, who started his talk by saying, “I wanted to do this presentation on flash fiction because I didn’t know much about it.” I thought, “That’s a bold man right there.” Normally we only want to teach subjects on which we consider ourselves to be experts, not what we want to learn about.

And I’m motivated by the omnipresent doubters, like Bob Neller, my boss at Camp Lejeune (now a 4-star general and Commandant of the Marine Corps) who told me in 1997 that I’d never get further in Spanish than possibly being able to order a meal, and another friend of mine who told me I´m too old to do this.

So I’m cramming as much elementary Italian in my brain as I can, the same way I learned Spanish, starting with phrases of greeting and introduction, making flashcards with regular verbs ending in -are, then -ere, then -ire. Then studying the irregular present verbs, numbers, vocabulary and pronunciation. Knowing what syllable to emphasize in Italian seems to be much more complicated than in Spanish, and I’ve been very slow to pick up on the pronunciation differences between cchi vs. ci / ce.   

As I face all I should learn between now and when I leave in a month, many doubts assail me: will our kids do a good job of taking care of themselves and the house while we´re gone? Will I be able to learn Italian well enough to be an effective teacher? Will my brain full of Spanish and dormant rudimentary Brazilian Portuguese help or hinder my learning?  Is my increasingly less plastic brain still flexible enough to learn something as complex as a new language? I’ll be essentially another student in the classroom with college students. That is certain to be awkward. Nobody goes on study abroad hoping to hang out with some old grey haired dude on the back nine of life.

I´m determined to force myself to think more about what will be great about this trip than what will be difficult: to have Margaret, the greatest travel partner ever, there with me the first month and to roam around Florence and Tuscany with her; to get where I´m conversational, and then, maybe, comfortable in basic Italian, to see other language teachers in action and pick up tips for how to be a more effective teacher of language; to unplug totally from the familiar and routine . . . it will all be great.

 . . . but not pressure free. Several agencies and departments around my University helped me fund this trip with the reasonable expectation of a payoff: that I come back here ready to teach what I´ve learned. Pressure is not bad, though. No pressure, no diamonds.

The Italian phrase to wish someone good luck on a challenging endeavor is “in bocca al lupo” or “in the wolf´s mouth” somewhat similar to the equally odd “break a leg” to mean good luck to performers about to take the stage. The proper response is supposed to be “Crepi” (May the wolf die).  

So here goes . . . it´s the wolf or me. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Bluebonnets and Water Crossings / 214 mile race Texas RAAM 2016

The Texas Race Across America event on March 18, 19 of 2016 featured races of nearly 400 miles and another of 214 miles. I did the shorter race. The start was in Marble Falls, west of Austin on the Colorado River. The course was a big loop through the beautiful Texas Hill Country down to Comfort, over to Kerrville, up west of Fredericksburg and back. Most riders (including all the 400 milers, I believe) had a support vehicle resupplying them and helping them with navigation. I rode in the randonneur division, which meant that I would be self-supported, relying on gas stations for resupply, and calling in my own checkpoints at three time stations the race directors used to help track the riders.

The staggered start was at 5 a.m. and it was cold and already extremely windy. I was set up with about 130 oz. of fluids, stuff to fix two flats, headlights and taillights, and a little nylon bag strapped to the top tube just behind the handlebars to carry food: peanuts, a couple of wraps that I cut into bite-size sections, fig newtons, and clif bars. One of my big water bottles had a thin mix of perpetuum, a powder with about 250 protein-heavy calories. In my other big bottle I dissolved two nuun electrolyte tablets to keep cramps at bay. I had plans to buy a couple of snickers bars and a burger in Kerrville.  If that sounds like a tremendous amount of food, keep in mind that for me, the 200+ miles would burn about 6,500 calories.

When we started in the dark, I was deathly afraid that I would miss a turn and sabotage my race. The cue sheet for navigation that we got the evening before the race was eight pages long; great if you’re riding shotgun in a support vehicle, not great if you’re self-supported.  Fortunately, I had downloaded the route map from the race website into my gps, which, along with the verbal descriptions of the sketchy places on the route from the race director, kept me straight.

I had a plan to keep my ride effort at 150 watts for the whole ride if at all possible. Power is the best measure of how hard you’re working, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of riding too hard early.
Riding in the Texas Hill Country means you’ll ride over cattle guards and through low water crossings. The cattle guards are easy: just keep pedaling and keep your front wheel straight. It was recommended that we dismount and walk the sections where water covered the low parts of the road (I guess there were about 20 such points). Those crossings can get super-slick, especially if they are tree-shaded and prone to grow algae. I developed a sense for how to identify the very slick crossings and walked my bike through them. Walking through the sometimes mid-shin deep water condemned us to ride the rest of the day with wet feet. The Swiftwick socks that my Bell and Co. team provided me kept me from having any foot problems due to wetness, swelling or friction. A couple of riders hit the deck hard trying to ride these crossings. One fractured a hip and the other did not finish.

My only mistake early in the race was to call in my first time station late. I had fixed in my mind that the first time station was at 79 miles, but it was actually at 72.9 near Luckenbach. I realized my mistake at about mile 74, dismounted and pulled out the cue sheets to confirm and texted to 2 of the race directors that I had cleared that first time station.

I was prepared to stop in Comfort (the 100-mile point) to refill my water, but it seemed like I had enough to make it to Kerrville at 119 miles, so I didn’t stop.  At Kerrville, I followed the advice of my coach, José Bermúdez, and made sure I ate as much as possible, including something hot and substantial. I texted in my time station at a convenience store, re-applied chamois cream, pulled off and stowed the knee warmers I had worn since the start, bought a gallon of water to top off my bottles and camelback, bought four snickers bars (I could only eat 2 through the course of the rest of the day) and headed down to the Dairy Queen for a burger. I was only able to eat about 2/3 of it. I had been very intentional about eating and drinking enough during the first 120 miles, since in my experience, being short on calories the first 100 miles will show up in your inability to push power the second hundred miles.

Leaving Kerrville started a section of about 35 miles that was nearly all uphill (including some tough, short climbs) and straight into an 18 mph headwind. I focused on just riding each hour as well as I could, keeping my cadence high, not taking any breaks and not being demoralized by my slow speed. I stopped seeing other riders and it occurred to me that I may have been running dead last since I had so much to do during my stop. I soon started to develop a shallow, rapid breathing out of proportion to my effort. I would switch gps screens from the map to the powermeter and I could see that my power output was slowly dropping, corroborated by my low heartrate. I’d also have short bouts of coughing. Since the wildflowers (blue bonnets and indian paintbrushes) were out in abundance, maybe it was an allergic reaction. Or maybe it was caused by the cold air or just the duration of the effort. It’s still a mystery. I passed an official and asked him if I was last or if anyone was behind me. He told me I was 5th overall at that point, including supported guys and teams. That was a nice surprise, and within the hour I passed another rider with his support vehicle stopped beside the road.
I stopped looking at the power screen and just resolved to keep eating and drinking and to not make any navigation errors.

Somewhere west of Fredericksburg, my wife pulled up alongside me and we chatted for a few seconds as I rode along. She went on ahead and stopped and got out. I stopped and she gave me a kiss and a hug. For her to come out there and find me (she had been hanging out in Fredericksburg most of the day) to hug and kiss on me, her ol´ sweaty husband, was a great morale boost.   
It was getting dark again as I approached Marble Falls. I had to turn my headlight back on and swap out my sunglasses for my clear ones. I made it back to the start/finish 4th overall, ahead of all the teams and all the supported guys but two. I was second in the randonneurs to David Baxter, an accomplished Ultracyclist who whipped us all.  

My average power for the day was a paltry 134 watts, but my normalized wattage (that doesn’t count coasting downhill or stopping) was 158 watts, which was above my goal. The GPS credited me with over 14,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the ride, even hillier than I had anticipated, but my lower back could have told me that.  

All in all, a very positive race for me, but to put it in perspective, my race was much less than a single day’s work for a cyclist crossing the country competing in RAAM, much less than what the 400 mile guys did, and it was about the distance that Kurt Searvogel did every day for a year to set the world record for highest annual mileage.

Things that worked well:
The training program. José Bermúdez had me on a program of 6 days per week, usually only about 90 minutes per day. Saturdays were progressively longer rides, working up to the distance and elevation change that I would see in Texas. Most weeks were under 200 miles except for the ones where I needed to put in a really big Saturday ride. He worked in threshold, VO2 max, hill repeats, steady state and tempo intervals based on percentages of my power at lactate threshold, the same training concept as any competitive cyclist at any distance. Rest was factored in every month, within the week, and even within each workout. I didn´t do any weights or swimming and did very little running in order to put all my effort into cycling prep for this race.

 ‘king bright light (headlight) by FYXO, an Australian company. I needed the brightest setting early in the morning, then turned it off for most of the day. It still had battery left when I needed to turn it on again near the end of the race.

Garmin Vector 2S powermeter. My bike got caught out in a biblical rain/hail storm during the pre-race meeting the evening before the race and I thought, “Surely my powermeter is ruined by rainwater.” But it worked perfectly.

Garmin 810 edge GPS. I bought a refurbished one for about 60% of its regular price. This and the powermeter represented huge purchases for a poor humanities professor, but both turned out to be enormously helpful for training and racing.

“Ride with GPS” digital, downloadable maps

Camelback mule (Carried lots of little odds and ends in addition to water. Never felt too heavy or shifty.

Michelin endurance pro 4 tires (the 25mm size absorbed road vibration very well). I inflated the front to 90 psi and the rear to 100, pretty low pressure for a heavy rider.

Zefal magnum 33-oz water bottles (I have the clear ones).

Pactimo kit and Swiftwick socks - the best, most comfortable, most functional gear I’ve worn in 30 years of cycling

Rol race SL wheels. These are from a company in Austin. Very affordable wheels, about the lightest I would attempt to ride, and have been almost totally maintenance-free. I’m not easy on wheels.

“Gas tank” by Revelate to carry accessible food on the bike

Things that could have worked better:
Trying to text in to race headquarters using Siri. I wanted to use this technique to save time and effort (we had to text in to two people at each time station), but Siri wouldn’t cooperate. She would confuse who I wanted to text with a similar name and fail to understand what I said, prompting me to use language that she found objectionable.

The “Ride with GPS” course map. This may have been a problem of a setting that I can program myself, but the map would not prompt me to turn until I was actually in the turn. In fact, initially, I wondered if it was beeping because I was turning or because it was telling me to turn. So I had to pretty much ride with the map on the screen to see upcoming turns. Still, much, much better than trying to ride while consulting 8 pages of cue sheets.

My ghetto toe warmers. For years I´ve used cut-off ziplock bags over my socks and under my shoes just to hold in a little body heat and keep the wind off of my toes. They´re not as good as real booties or toe warmers, but I knew those would just get wet. The ziplock baggies, though, from the very first low water crossing, just seemed to hold water in. I only pulled them off at about ¾ of the way through the race. I should have done it in Kerrville at my long stop.

My breathing. I’m looking into Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction and what to do about it.