5/18/10

Italy: Day 2

As I sit along one of Assisi’s winding brick paths off a one-way street, I can’t help but reflect on the journey I’ve taken to get here. An American student with limited experience in international travel, I’m amazed at how quickly I’ve begun to navigate these Italian streets. Even still, it seems surreal.

This place is incredible – the sights, the sounds, the smells. This morning I opened my window to a chorus of chirping birds. The sunlight streamed through the white curtain and promised the beauty that this day would bring. And the day certainly came through on its promise.

I say this because it’s almost poetry here in Assisi. It’s a poetry of life that envelops both local and traveler in a feeling outside of what I’ve ever known. It’s a level of comfort between neighbors, a friendliness of shopkeepers, a trust of visitors, and a patience of everyday work. The personality of the town points toward its most famous local, Saint Francis of Assisi.

Today, our class made the trip past Saint Francis’ Basilica toward the Biblioteca. It’s a breathtaking stroll that takes us down residential alleys to a view of the valley that one has to see to believe. In the crossroads at the foot of the hill, we were surrounded by tourists lined up to visit the resting place of this still-impactful saint. Along the roads, small vendors were selling “Che” t-shirts and knick-knacks. Occasionally, Franciscan friars would pass us in his traditional black tunic. Locals strolled by speaking loud, rapid Italian and laughing responses.

“Am I really here?” I thought to myself, snapping pictures of the countryside and avoiding a bus as it careened down the narrow road.

I am here, and I am appreciating everything I’ve had the opportunity to take in. I loved being able to walk the open terrace at the Biblioteca. I loved sipping cappuccino at the café in the square. I loved looking at ancient manuscripts in the library with our professor’s friend, Stefano. I loved seeing an underground chapel used by devout Franciscan friars. I loved eating spaghetti at a family restaurant. It’s all so magical that I can’t imagine living here the way the Assisians do.

I’m used to the fast-paced life of New York City and Boston. There’s part of me that’s so connected to a need for speed – to do my homework, to get to an appointment, to solidify my future. In the last 24 hours, Assisi has taught me more on reflection than I’ve ever known in the United States. As locals welcome tourists with their broken Italian accents, or in my case, limited Italian vocabulary, I begin to appreciate Saint Francis’ servitude and love of people for what it really was. In a town like this, I can almost see the life that he lived.

Early in the day, our tour of the Biblioteca started with a look at the ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 6th Century. It was incredible to see the annotation on these handwritten pieces – particularly a book of Roman law completely covered in berry-made ink.

Biblioteca:


One friar then took us on a surprise visit to the Biblioteca terrace, which overlooks the valley. From there, we could see the room where the Pope stays on his visits to Assisi. The brother then explained to the class that the archways look like two hands clasped in prayer. After, he took us to an underground chapel, which held a secret passageway to Rocca Maggiore (a fortified castle) and would have been used in times of civil war.

View from Rocca Maggiore:


Rocca Maggiore:


Having some spare time in between our Biblioteca visit and our writing assignment, I took a solitary 30-minute walk up to Rocca Maggiore, which has one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. I had gotten lost a few times along the way, probably because I had to ask for directions in Italian, but it was worth it. When I reached the top, I asked a fellow visitor (again in Italian) if she would take a picture, to which she replied, “you want me to take a picture of you?” in English. I felt only slightly foolish.

The view from the terrace in the Biblioteca (uppermost corner window is where the pope stays.):


Later in the afternoon, I people-watch in bare feet, enjoying the sun and the antiquated atmosphere. A man passes me carting boxes of bottled water. Two tourists take a picture in front of a sign on the building next to me. A young woman leisurely passes by with a white sweater tied around her waist. The same man passes me with his cart of waters. A car with babies in the back seats drives by, followed by a blue Vespa. I respond, “Ciao,” to a passing nun. Another nun in a white tunic starts a conversation with a local shopkeeper. This is Assisi. This is peace that I can only assume is closer to what God desires for his people.

The underground church in the Biblioteca:


Which brings me to what I’ve wondered since I arrived on these grounds: do Assisians fully recognize the blessed life they lead? Do they understand the beauty in such simplicity? A fellow classmate noticed yesterday that the locals live on less: less food, less space, less material possession. I can’t fathom the difficulty that I would have adapting to this life on a permanent basis. Going from the United States to the simplicity of Assisi is a daunting task. The difficulty makes it seem like that much more of a necessity. We could live like this if we tried. But most Americans are too stressed and too immersed in a culture teaching them that this is the most efficient way to live.

I envy you, Assisians. I hope that you know how wonderful it is to look out your window at a hillside view, to walk the streets of ancient ruin, and to live in a community of relative seclusion. It points to what Thornton Wilder said in his play, Our Town: “Does anyone really appreciate life while they’re alive? Saints and poets maybe…” Assisi, may you be filled with saints and poets – blessed by the example of your Saint Francis.