Monday, October 31, 2011

Italian Halloween.

A Monday Halloween at Santa Chiara means it's time to pull out all the stops and be resourceful and creative in costume-making.

The costume contest winners: A Venetian gondola with Japanese tourists. A little racist? Yes. Does the hilarious factor make up for it? I think so.

Photo cred to Amanda.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Praha and pivo.

Au revoir to Sarah, while Kristen and I went on to beautiful Prague.

The city is pretty fantastic in the sense that everything is really old, and intriguing, and even if you don't know what you're looking at, it's great to just peruse. I still don't know much about the CR, other than it used to be under Communist rule, and it has this really old bridge called Charles Bridge, and a castle, and hot wine. Oh, and really, really, really good beer, or "pivo."

Lennon wall, constantly changing in opposition to the now-squashed Communist regime

Stumbling upon St. Nick's tower was probably the most informative/interesting thing we did. The church tower had been used as a cute little apartment for the bell-ringer, but when the Communist government took over, it was used by the secret police as a watchtower. Oh, boy, was that exhibit eerie. A soundtrack of 40s-50s Czech music put us back in time as we ascended the spiral staircase and looked at B&W spy-pics of "political suspects." Creepy creepy creepy.

creepiest. place. ever.
Kristin & the Czech flag. this one's for her kolache-making, pivo-drinking grandparents!
did I mention how good the beer is? monk-made. best pivo I've ever had.
Other best part of Prague are the beautiful walking trails, with hundreds of trees turned orange & red from the cold.

creepy little Commie hide outs in the forest! so many secrets!
Prague castle and cathedral
Prague at night! Warning: unsafe if you are alone!

town square all lit uppp

Just a glimpse of a beautiful and interesting city, and a little taste of the East European culture.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reason #743 I can thank my Grandpa

We said goodbye to our beloved George & Christel, and headed for the Normandy region of France.

Oh, France. There is something about you, with your snobbery, and butter, and cheese, and cuisine, and wine, and rolling green hills, and cows, that pulls at my heart almost more than anywhere else. You wouldn't believe how pretty driving through Normandy is. It's SO green, and the cows are the happiest in the world (the proof is in the butter and cheese).

Pretty convenient that Sarah is fluent in French! And also pretty convenient that Grandpa established a friendship many, many years ago that led to us have yet another European host...

The story of this relationship is pretty incredible, really. If you've read my previous posts, you know that my Grandpa was a POW during WWII, and that he's a Cajun, and fluent in French. He's also one of the most social people I've ever known–we've often lost him, only to find him minutes later talking to the train conductor, or pilot or something.

So! Years ago, the French Huard family up and moved to Louisiana. The handshake between Don (Gpa) and Claude Huard was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. You see, Claude, too, had been a prisoner during the war. But because Claude & his wife Simone participated in a branch of the French Resistance directly under de Gaulle, he was an important "political enemy" of the Germans. This led to his 22 months of imprisonment in two concentration camps, the last one being Dachau.

Though Claude died at a nice old age, I had the great privilege to travel with my mom and Gpa to France 5 years ago to meet Simone and her son, Rene, and daughter Mimi.
16 year old self and Don (Grandpa) in Normandy. lookin like a wee little babyyy!

Sixteen then, twenty-one now. It's pretty surreal to be back.

Rene sent his colleagues (he drives an airport shuttle for a living) to pick us up from the train station and take us to the hotel. We settled into our teensy tiny room (now we know why it's so cheap)!

our hotel. seriously, it doesn't extend much beyond the frame. baguettes + cheese was a repeated meal.

Rene picks us up for a cafeteria-style dinner, and we talk and talk...or rather, he talks and talks. No matter, the man is a wealth of knowledge and stories–can you imagine having a father like his? He drives us into Rosel, the little town where he and his mother and sister live. Even though it's nighttime, my heart does leaps along the drive there, as I recognize one landmark after another, and as we pull up in front of their house.

the Huard's

Oh, my God, what a reunion. It was as if I had just been there yesterday. I ran over to Mimi and Simone. There are kisses and tears, especially as the first thing they tell me is, "We pray for you and your family everyday!" And when Simone reminds us how important it is to pray– talking about how Claude didn't want to while imprisoned, but did anyway with the hopes he would see his family again. If only we could soak up the wisdom of 92-year-old French women more often.

The next day we visit Bayeux, see the famous Battle of Hastings tapestry–world's longest–and the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral that probably preserved the town from bombing during the war.

Notre Dame in Bayeux. there is nothing quite like the energy of French Gothic architecture

the river in Bayeux

Sarah's pot o' mussels

Rene also gave us a tour of the American Cemetery in Normandy, which overlooks Omaha beach. (This is another site I saw 5 years ago, when the mayor of a nearby town gave Grandpa the keys to his city. Gpa spent D-Day in the German prison camp, but simply because he is a WWII veteran, the citizens are still grateful to this day).

I can't even begin to explain how powerful and beautiful this place is. Rene told us that the grass surrounding each white cross (there are 9,387 of them) is cut by hand daily, because edgers damage the marble. What a labor of love! Something new for me was the visitors' center, which also serves as a sort of D-Day museum...If we only knew how awful storming that beach was.

What more can I say? It's emotionally draining; it made us miss home terribly. And I firmly believe that every U.S. citizen should make the effort to visit and pay respect to those who "gave their consecutive freedom to ensure that we have ours." Read more here.

Rene at the Cemetery

a view of the cliffs.

How else were we spoiled in France? For one thing, Rene set it up so we were able to make the trip to Mont-Saint-Michel, and fantastic cathedral/abbey/prison/medieval town located on a small island. You can't get to the place if the tides are high! As we learned from Pierre, our driver, (how's that for a stereotypical French name?) construction on the island began in 708, when according to legend, St. Michael the Archangel appeared to the bishop and insisted he build a church on the island.


Rene drove us all the way to Paris from Caen for us to catch our flights. When we thanked him, he simply asserted, "I just remember how much Uncle Don did for Dad when he had nothing. You treat people right, and it will come back to you."

This blog post is brought to you by my grandfather and hero, Don Menard.

Aaaand, more poetry. I can't help but be inspired :
One handshake, how many years ago

Shuffling little steps,
a simple businessman,
but less self-motivated
than social.
My mother’s father.

how he lights up at that
beautiful tongue of the Franks
when he hears it or speaks it
and how
his aged body,
shuffling steps,
cannot keep up with his youthful spirit–
not crushed in that prison–
and the love in his clear
blue eyes.

how he helped Claude
and Claude helped him
(there is something shared that only
prisoners can know).
So now Claude’s son
voice like a trumpet, running
helps us

Helps us to see with the eyes of his father
bombed trains,
cut wires–
anything to stop the bastards.
We would call him a terrorist now.

Who endured
22 months
of torture–
oh God, what lungs can hold it?
Rightfully caused him to doubt
this supposedly
Christian God.

fireball of a French woman
sedentary body but
running mind,
tells us
Claude did not want to pray

But no, I am sorry
precious Lord,
I love you.
I want to see my
my son
I want to
live again.

Did he see it in Don’s clear
blue eyes?
Or feel the ache in his shoulder
when he stood before a man
with hands like hams
took the blow
for a Jute?

Don weeps at Claude’s grave,
before his body
and the Body of Christ.

If I did not comprehend
the stain of original sin
earned and passed down from
our once-naked parents–
I know now.

How every deed we assign ourselves to
commit ripples down from generation
to generation.

Because Don shook Claude’s hand
(what those hands did and, maybe
what they protected eyes from seeing–
callused as bodies
withered and dropped
like flies)

Man with the trumpet voice
remembers the handshake
firm and sincere.

That’s how Don ran a business.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guten tag, again!

For our week-long fall break, Sarah, Kristen and I first hit up my European home base, Landstuhl. (We hoped for no more "not Pompeii" incidents while traveling together again).

I expected a few days of rest in the Braden's beds (fabricated by angels, they are SO comfy), maybe a simple hike to the castle and exploration of the little German town. I never once expected Christel and George, friends of the Braden's, to act as such welcoming hosts to us!

We were positively spoiled. Christel took us out for breakfast in town, we shopped a little, ate dinner at the castle (remember that thing?). She even drove us to Kaiserslautern, where a little Oktoberfest was happening (oh, German food and beer, you are so delicious)! She & George welcomed us into their home for coffee and sweets, and took us to Sunday Mass on Ramstein Air Base.

Can you believe a couple did that for a girl they only met twice, and two other girls they had never met? We were so blown away by their doting and still are.

revisiting the castle

mmm Germanyyy. sweet Christel sitting next to me. George is taking the picture.


Sarah's pure joy captured on film after "pommes frites" –fried potato pancakes with applesauce. SO good

Sarah: "For the first time on this trip, this is a place that I'm not ready to leave." Awwwwww.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Batezzo in Venezia

Oh, magical city! Seriously. We stepped of the train to see Venice's veins–the canals that run intricately like streets in and between buildings.

Many incredible adventures: St. Mark's square and basilica, getting lost (it's impossible not to), watching gondolas row about, visiting the incredible Guggenheim art museum, time spent on the vaparettos (water taxis), visiting the Murano island famous for its glass, and the colorful homes on Burano island, seeing a concert of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

Had a sweet tour of the Doges' Palace with Anna, a sing-songy old lady with a lot of spunk. I think my favorite part of our walk through the quieter streets was seeing her birthplace. She made us laugh with her tales of Venice's floods, and bets they place on fat tourists falling into the water.

Anna (who sang "yoo-hoo" to grab our attention and the palace

tried squid-ink pasta, a specialty. kinda fishy

blurry shot from the Rialto bridge

St.Mark's square, taken from St.Mark's basilica (it's covered in gold & mosaics, Byzantine style. so so impressive. also houses the body of Mark, the writer of the Gospel–which the Venetians stole from Egypt way back when)

Speaking of dumb tourists falling into water. Yes, friends. I took an unintentional and miserably cold dip in Venice's canals. My precious friend Travis was with me; any other person would have laughed at the sight of a girl slipping on a step and getting her boots, legs, and butt wet. Not Travis! I think he was more concerned than I was for myself: "What can I do to make this better?!" I thrust him my camera, "Document this!" So here is the series of the aftereffects of my Venetian baptism:

Needless to say, Venice and I have a special bond. And even though its canal ate my ricotta cake, and forced me to buy new shoes, I still love that mysterious, romantic place. I'm terribly sad that it is sinking.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

life in a postcard

Dear friends & family,

In case you hadn't drawn the conclusion from pictures that I've posted, we're pretty much living in a postcard over here.

Pienza and Montepulciano are proofs #373 and 374.

Pienza, dubbed so since from it Pope Pius II hailed, has an expansive view of the Val d'Orcia that feels completely surreal–a lot like those views I had of the Dolomites.

cuties being all artsy and sketching

It also is home to the best lasagna in the in, better than the Bolognese lasagna. I would have taken a picture for you to drool over, but I was a little too engrossed in eating it.

After that unforgettable lunch (the stuff of dreams), we each chose between walking down the Via dell 'Amore or Via del' Fortuna. You can only walk down one! Of course, I chose the way of love.

Montepulciano is similarly scenic and famous for its wine production. We toured a wine cellar, tasted a fantastic '06 "riserva," and walked off a little of the lasagna.

Dad will be so proud of my love of wine.

two women in Montepulciano, who sat and talked for hours like this. I wonder if they do this everyday!

It is hard to believe how blessed we are.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Va Bene

Hello, friends. It's been a while! I hope this little reflection finds you well. Nothing quite like blogging and letting Louis and Ella serenade ya on a cold day...

I've really neglected sharing my Castiglione adventures. You know hardly anything about my classes, my friends, the locals. All are more than wonderful!

To be honest, I was glad to have come down with a cold the week before last. It forced me to slow down and match my pace to that of the locals. There is an Italian saying that I love: "Domani...tomorrow."

One Italian friend, Pierpaolo, pretty much has the key to the city. There are a number of vacant, nonworking churches and other buildings in town that he has access to. It was so exciting to have him open the doors to this octagonal, oddly intriguing church to a few of us.

We also were able to see the 19th century theater that sits across the main was pretty much like being in a live version of Phantom of the Opera as we explored the rafters and backstage.

A couple of Italian girls are now interning here at Santa Chiara and have become some of the loveliest of my delight, Elisa showed us around the Arezzo market, the outlet mall, and even invited us to join her family for an incredible lunch. I had four–count 'em, four–servings of the most incredible pasta I have ever eaten. Made with love by her precious Mama who replied to my offer to help clean up: "You work in the kitchen at Santa Chiara, now I serve you!"

Speaking of working in the kitchen! It's a little tough but great. For some reason, washing dishes is therapeutic for me–even though it's about 120ish dishes. The chef, Giuliana, is like our Italian mama. She might pretend to yell at us, and think we're stupid for not knowing Italian, but she kisses us on our cheeks and refers to me as "Piccolina," or "small one."

I've never had a course load that is so suited to my interests and personality. In addition to culture and history of Italy, Paolo is working one-on-one with the 4 Viz kids that are here on a compositional/abstract project. "We don't know where we go, we just play!" is sort of our motto. He took us out for gelato and a glimpse at his private jets the other's ridiculous, isn't it?

My poetry class is taught by a woman probably around my grandmother's age. She's seemingly passive, but never ceases to make me laugh with her quiet humor and giggles. She's also commented on how advanced my work is, imagine that! I never thought of myself as a good poet, but turns out I can produce some journal-worthy stuff. We write poems on our experiences, on art, on buildings, on everything.

On the side, I'm doing watercolors and black and white photography. Developing your own film is such a fun process–to see a picture come to life before your eyes! There's nothing quite like it. Especially when it's taught by Paolo's older and precious brother Giovanni, who's taught B&W for 45 years.

It's a good life in Toscana. I wish that everyone could experience it, or any excursion outside of the States. If you have the desire to travel, DO it. Don't hesitate to set aside some funds, to mess up your schedule a little.

I think your senses are heightened when you are pushed into an unfamiliar setting. I try to appreciate everything, every meal, every encounter with other people. And I intend to apply that same sense of carpe diem to life back home. My friend Wendy compared life to picking up sand. It slips through our fingers very, very quickly.

The struggle is the same across the world: how do we best use our time? The Lord's blessings come in all shapes and he wants us to live life fully! I don't want to hold back any of my love. Let's worry about the rest domani.