Archive for May, 2010


Meredith: It could have been me

May 31, 2010

One thing I’ve noticed with studying human rights and looking at other societies where these human rights violations, civil wars, state terrorism, etc. occur, is the mentality that this would not, could not, happen to me. Maybe it’s a form of coping, or a way to be able to analyze these issues without being overwhelmed by emotion, but people seem to put up a psychological wall, a form of distance, a safe abstraction from the sadness and terror.

Something I can’t ignore anymore is this: it could have been me. It would have been me. I can’t say this for sure, but if I had been alive in Argentina in the 70s, I would have, probably could have, been disappeared.

I am a leftist. I am liberal. I would have been young, idealistic. I can imagine that I would have been involved in politics, or at least in social justice initiatives like working in camps for children from the slums, las ciudades ocultas. Or, I could have been like those five or six students killed that weren’t even involved in politics, only protesting against raised bus fares. I’m Jewish. My name could have been in the address book of a friend, an acquaintance, or someone I knew that had been disappeared. I could have said the wrong thing, worn the wrong shirt. I might have looked suspicious. I might have asked too many questions.

Or, I could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Tarin: first week recap

May 31, 2010

Let’s see if I can remember what I did on all these days last week!

Had lecture in the morning (on early Baroque) and went to the Musei Capitolini. Saw some works by Caravaggio, though most of the ones we will be seeing are in the Caravaggio Exhibit going on in Rome (displaying close to 40 of his paintings—huge exhibit).

In the evening, we went to an aperitivo. This is like a happy hour in the US, kind of. You buy a drink (for around 8-10 euro) and then get access to a buffet of finger foods and pastas. I ordered a beer and cinnamon mojito (bar tender suggested). It was made with vodka, not rum, and was SO GOOD. Who would have thought that combination would taste like anything remotely drinkable? The food was great, too. A lot of Italians go to these after work and before dinner to socialize. It was fun! The place it was at was called Fluid, and was pretty cool. When you stepped on the floor, a liquid squished out from under your foot (under the tiles). I suppose that’s the connection to the name…

Lecture in the AM. Then we went to the Galleria Doria-Pamphili and saw some more works of art. The gallery was in the Doria-Pamphili family palace, and they still live there! Crazy.

In the morning, we met at Piazza Navona and started the day with site visits. Lecture was in the afternoon. We visited some basilicas with the most AMAZING quadratura (illusionistic architecture) and three-dimensional painting. I couldn’t distinguish between painting and sculpture. There was even a fake dome painted. Just amazing. I hope I’m able to retain everything I’m learning. There’s a LOT of information being thrown out.

In the evening, a group of us went out for dinner (for a real Italian, multiple course meal). Sarah, Lisa, and I dressed up. It was very difficult to maneuver through the side streets made of cobblestones with gaping holes while wearing heels. I only lost my shoe once!

We met at Piazza del Popolo and visited several churches/basilicas. Friday’s we get done early, in case people want to travel and do things on the weekend. So, I ate lunch around 11:30 with a group of people. We were sitting outside and the restaurant was on the road, and vehicles were literally driving withing a foot or two of the people sitting on the outside of the table! It didn’t phase anyone. I’m definitely getting used to things here. We took the subway to get to the Piazza del Popolo, and it felt like a normal day. If everyone spoke English, and the city wasn’t 2000 odd years old, I would feel like I was in Minneapolis with a bunch of people taking a summer class. It’s nice how easy things really are.


Eric: A day in Lucca

May 30, 2010

Imagine you live in a foreign country. What is the most important thing you should bring with you if you are going out? You should NOT be bringing your passport, since the chance of it getting lost is pretty big. Instead, it should be stored at somewhere secure at the place you are staying, and you should have a copy of it with you. I walked out of my apartment this morning, realizing that I managed to forget any money, which then led me to realize that I forgot to bring my keys to the apartment. All these realizations happened after I closed the apartment door. Bad choice and almost a disaster. Fortunately one of my apartment mates was still in there, sleeping. I was very glad to see the door open after I rang the bell twice and he came, not very happily.

Repeating the almost-panic pattern, I bought a train ticket to Lucca with the screen displaying “This train leaves in 2 minutes.” After getting change from the ticket machine, I ran to find the right platform and found out that the final destination of the train  was not Lucca. So I ran to the nearest timetable to make sure that the train actually stops at Lucca, and at the same time tried to validate my ticket. (Italian train system requires passenger to validate their tickets, which just means taking your ticket to a yellow box near the platform and have it punched and the time printed, before boarding the train.) But I ended up making it.

Another thing about trains in Italy: the announcement, if any, on the train is usually only in Italian. This means that you have to listen very carefully for the name of the station, or look out the window to see whether the station is the one you want to get off at. However, some stations, such as Lucca, don’t have that many signs and you couldn’t see them on the train. I got off at the right station only because I heard people sitting nearby talking about it.

Lucca, according to my travel guide, is known to be Europe’s leading producer of toilet paper and Kleenex (next time I sit on a toilet I will think about that. As not many tourists visit Lucca, it was a quiet little town that is really nice to walk in. The city is surrounded by city walls that stretches for 2.5 miles and are mostly undamaged. Lucca’s first wall was built nearly 2000 years ago, and since then expanded in the 16th century, and looks pretty much the same today.

The walls are 100 foot wide and faced with bricks, designed to absorb any kind of canon attack in the 16th century. Today people can walk and ride bikes on top of the walls. The walls kept away both Florentines and Pisans. It wasn’t until Napoleon came along did Lucca finally fall under foreign rule.

There was one feature that made Lucca a little more interesting: towers. There are a lot of towers in the city: next to cathedrals, being part of the city, or even part of someone’s house. I didn’t climb any of them, but my postcards tell me that up there the city looks like, and probably is, a tightly-packed fortress. It’s no wonder that the Florentines and Pisans didn’t even bother to try to invade Lucca.

For lunch I found this pizzeria and ordered foccacine ripene con cecina. According to the translated version of the menu, foccacine ripene is supposed to be some sort of pizza with white sauce, which sounded pretty good to me. When I got my order, I didn’t find any sauce on the thing, and I though cecina looked like some kind of flat omelet. After I got home, I found out that cecina is actually almost another kind of bread made with chickpea-flour. No wonder I thought the entire thing tasted pretty dry. But since I was hungry, and the entire thing just came out of the oven, hot with crust on the outside, it was a good enough meal for me.

I spent the next one hour or so walking on the city wall, occasionally coming down into the city to see a cathedral. I walked a full circle on the walls, and came down to see if there’s anything else to see. There is one famous composer from the city of Lucca: Giacomo Puccini, who used to play organ in a church in the city. There is also a Roman Amphitheater in the center of the city. Well, at least there used to be. Now on top of the ruin is a piazza with shops.

After about one more hour of strolling, I took the train back to Florence, and, I have to shamefully admit, had dinner at McDonald’s. My defenses were that I was really thirsty, the markets weren’t open, I wasn’t in the mood to cook, and it was really close to the train station. I did find out that unlike in the states and like Taiwan, the drinks are not free to refill, and you get to choose salad instead of fries. The price was pretty European though.


Eric: A day in Pisa

May 29, 2010

It’s the weekend again!! This means it’s travel time again, and most of the people on the program have already either taken the train yesterday or today to Rome. Since I will be in Rome at the end of the program anyway, I didn’t follow, and instead chose to go visit Pisa. It was kind of a nice day trip, since there wasn’t really that much to see in Pisa, I got to spend all the time I want at each of the place I went to.

I tried to follow the walking route suggested by my travel guide, and ended up on the wrong spot, which was fine with me. Getting lost is a great way to find out more about a place, and Pisa is really not that big anyway. The same Arno River that flows through Florence also flows through Pisa, and once I found the river, I was back on track. After that, I went to the gelateria suggested on the travel guide and got a huge cone of mango and zuppa inglese gelato for only 1.50 euro (the cheapest I have manged to find is 2 euro in Florence).

Walking does make a person hungry, so I bought half a pizza for lunch (eating pizza in Pisa!!), even though I have no idea what’s really on the pizza (some kind of meatball I am guessing). It was tasty anyway. I was walking and eating it at the same time, and at a turn, the famous tower just appeared at the end of the street. I have to admit, my first thought when I saw the tower was that, it’s shorter than I thought it would be. Then I got closer and realized that since the tower had been leaning and sinking into the ground, its first level is actually below ground level.

The building of the tower first started in 1173, was halted twice through history, and was finished in late 1300s. The tower was build on unstable soil, and was leaning toward south the entire time when it was being built. In the 19th and 20th century, the leaning became such a serious problem (to the point that they feared the tower may collapse) that the Italian government tried various methods to stop the leaning. After multiple unsuccessful attempts, an international team was commissioned to stop the leaning and even reverse the leaning if possible. The tower was closed in 1990 for repair. The commission finally found a way to stop the leaning, which was to suck up soil from the north side of the tower, so that instead of leaning toward the south, the tower would adjust toward the north. The base structure of the tower was also reinforced.

Other than the tower, I went to the Duomo and Baptistery next to the tower. I didn’t actually climb the tower, as it costs a lot more than I thought it should to do that. The Duomo was a much better deal. It has amazing art inside, and I also saw the replacement of the bronze lamp that supposedly inspired Galileo Galilei to study and find out about the properties of pendulum. It was a pretty peaceful place, and I almost took a nap in there.

The Baptistery is the biggest in Italy. The outside looks a lot more impressive than the inside, as there really wasn’t much. The interesting thing about the Baptistery is that it was also designed to be a musical instrument. If you make a sound in there, it echoes for a good 10 seconds. Every half an hour a security guard would come in and demonstrate this by singing. You can make sing a chord without having 3 mouths in this place!


Meredith: ESMA and “disappearances”

May 29, 2010

How to begin this post? I have no idea. How do you start to describe a visit to what has been called the Auschwitz of Argentina? A place where 5,000 people were tortured and out of that 5,000, only 200 survived. Do the math.

ESMA, La Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, is the Navy Mechanics School. During the military dictatorship, it was one of the largest clandestine torture centers. When you read about ESMA on the internet, the main picture you see is this but it’s important to know that this was not where prisoners, the so-called subversives, were kept. Rather, they were kept in a more sinister location—the officers house. If you leave the main building, and continue on, you will reach a former control tower that restricted access to the Officers’ House. A chain was connected to the control tower, a tangible barrier representing the cruelty behind what felt like a point of no return. Many of the survivor testimonies attest to going over a bump shortly before being dragged out of a car and into ESMA.

This does not mean that what was happening in the officers’ house was secret. As the guide explained, 40-60% of all naval cadets dealt with and/or oversaw the prisoners there. By restricting access and creating the need for “special clearance” to reach the officers’ house, a pact of silence centered around connivance and complicity was created. Everyone was involved, everyone dirtied their hands. To speak out would be to implicate everyone and this alone has created the incentive to never divulge what happened at ESMA. You can see this pact is strong and still in place today: all of the information known about ESMA comes from survivor testimonies.

This is about ESMA, and it is about so much more, as all productions are. In some ways, the dirty war was a performance, a mixture of visibility and invisibility, appearance and disappearance. The system of “disapperances” devised by the military junta was used to spread terror, to paralyze, to silence, to cause the atomization of society. The Argentine military was innovative in their methods. Some disappearances happened in the dead of night. Some happened on a desolate street. Below is an excerpt from the testimony of Alicia Partnoy, a desaparecida and author of La Escuelita (The Little School),

“On January 12, 1977, I was in my house with my daughter Ruth (who was about a year and a half at the time) when I heard the insistent ring of the door bell. It was the middle of the day. I walked the thirty metrs down the hallway that separated my room from the front door. When I arrived, someone was banging forcefully on the door. I asked, who is it? And they responded: The Military; meanwhile, they continued to knock. In that moment, I remembered the thousands of murders, disappearances, and tortures that the military had been doing for at least over a year. Only then I tried to run and escape from the hallway, jumping over the back wall. Then they stopped me near one of the neighbors walls. My daughter, who had followed me through the hallway to the door, began to cry. I could not see her nor did I know what they had down with her until five months after. I didn’t even know if a bullet had killed her. Five soldiers forcefully put me in the truck. Besides my daughter’s claims, I only remember the hateful look from the operation leader. There were at least three military vehicles in the block, forcing the neighbors to remain inside. The delegation continued to the place where my husband worked, about fifteen blocks from our home. There, they detained him, taking us both…”

Read the rest of this entry ?


Eric: An ordinary day…?

May 28, 2010

Well, since it is in a city I don’t normally live in, I guess it’s not that ordinary. We had class at 9 am, and a guest lecturer came in to talk about Italian meals. At noon, I went to Mercato Centrale to buy stuff to eat, and I finally got the famous panino trippa alla Florentino (Florentine tripe sandwich)! For those of you who don’t eat insides of animals, this might not be the best post to read.

Tripe, or cow stomach, may sound gross, but I had it before in Taiwan, and it tasted pretty good. Here in Florence, it was cooked in some kind of red sauce, and I have to say that it didn’t really taste as flavorful as I though it would. The sandwich was kind of like bread with tomato sauce, and the tripe just provided a little chewy texture.

From a shop around the market, I also got a bag of cantucci, which are almond biscotti, and amazingly delicious. They are not hard to the point that you’ll break your teeth eating it, but enough that you can chew on it for a while. They are also kind of expensive too, as many people do buy them to give to other people as gifts.

After lunch, I took a nap, like most people living on the Mediterranean coast, and woke up to do nothing for a couple hours. I cooked dinner (cheese scrambled egg with zucchini, and chicken hearts), and went out for gelato. I got panna montata (some kind of cream) and coffee flavor today. Starting today to Sunday, it is the second annual Firenze Gelato Festival, so it only make sense that I follow that spirit of the festival.

I guess at this point I had reached the depressed phase people feel when they study abroad. According to the “experts,” people who study abroad often experience this after the initial phase of high excitement. Well, really, I don’t feel sad or anything, just a little bit homesick and missing people in the Twin Cities. I think I’ll get over it pretty quickly, since I felt the same thing when I was by myself for a month in St. Paul last summer. A day like today is exactly what I needed after seeing so much in the past week. So feeling this and that, I went to Piazza Michelangelo, where the fake David statute is. It was the perfect opportunity to take pictures, since there wasn’t that many tourists, and I had all the time I need to take as many pictures as I want at the piazza. I also took pictures of every single statues outside of the Uffizi, many many famous people.

As the day got darker, I walked slowly back towards my apartment. There is a bookstore across the street from my apartment, and delightfully, I found out that it doesn’t close until midnight (which is pretty rare considering other stores usually close around 8 or 9 pm). I went in and took pictures of all seven books of Harry Potter in Italian, and found out that Severus Snape is called Severus Piton in Italian. This definitely lightened up my mood. Tomorrow I am going to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower.


Eric: Flour, Cows & Honey

May 27, 2010

Today was a long day. We woke up around 6:40 am so that we could get to the meeting point by 7:30 am, as early departure ensures that we see everything planned. We departed for Siena (1.5 hour by bus), where we visited Molino Parri, a flour milling company that has been in business since 1700.

Well, obviously they have made quite a few changes since 1700, as Molino Parri is now a technologically advanced mill, completely run using electricity. The owner did show us the old mill though. As often emphasized, the mill produces high-quality flour without using any chemical additives, unlike some other companies and those in the states. Molino Parri uses the best grain available, tests the content of protein and other component in the flour, then adjusts the content according to the clients’ need by mixing different ones together.

We then headed to Valdichiana, where the famous cow breed of Chianine is found. The Chianine breed is one of the most important bovine breeds in Italy, and is regarded as one of the highest quality beef there is. The cows are easily recognizable by their porcelain white coats, and are only fed grass, instead of animal powders other people may use to save money.

The cows mooed really loudly when we walked in (yes, cows in Italy do moo like any other kinds of cows), even though we had no idea why. We were invited into the owners’ house for a little snack, which turned out to be more than a little, as we got plenty of sweet things that were extremely tasty (there’s a pattern here…).

We were a little bit off-schedule at this time, so we were given one hour to have lunch in the town of Lucignano, which happened to be holding a medieval fair called “Maggiolata.” We didn’t really feel much celebration, as the time we got there was pretty much the resting time. In Italy, most shops open at around 7 or 8:30 in the morning, close at 1:30 pm for a break, and re-open again at around 3:3o pm. Final closing time of the day varies. We managed to find a small restaurant where I got a pretty tasty gnocchi with 4 cheeses.

Later, we went to visit a local honey producer. As hard as it is believe, the 73-year-old owner has been working with bees since he was 7, and had been stung multiple times a day since he started working. He explained to us that human really doesn’t do much in the process of producing honey. All he does is to provide the model for the bees to build their beehives, and collect the honey after it is made.

The 3 places we visited all had one thing in common: they all believe that food should be produced and presented the way nature has it, and no artificial addition should be added for any purposes. Oh what a busy week, I am really looking forward to weekend now…

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