Or a post wherein I state and illustrate the obvious.
I love to travel, and the longer I do the more important context becomes. For instance, as I was growing up there were monuments and landmarks that seemed important to visit just because everyone knew of them--the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Wall of China. As a child, and even as a teen, I didn't get wrapped up in the context of the tourist sites. For instance, I didn't realize, for years, that most Parisians consider le tour Eiffel a blight on their fair city; yet, millions of tourists flock to that destination year after year. Most of the flock are unaware when or why the tower was built.
|Basilica di Santa Chiara (where she's buried--more on her later)|
As I grew up, context of sites became more important to me, in part because I started visiting sites that weren't household names (in the US, at least). Without context, all I knew was that I was visiting something old and, likely, something mostly empty. Knowing the history and impact of these places makes each visit more powerful to me.
And that's where a good guide comes in.
A bad guide can pretty much ruin a trip. The strongest example I have of a bad guide comes from my one and only experience in Thailand. I had great expectations for Thailand. They were largely unmet. I was left feeling disappointed and frustrated. While there were other reasons than our guide that could explain my reaction*, she deserves a fair share of the blame. The places she took us served horrible food. (And this isn't a case of me preferring Americanized Thai food to the real thing. These restaurants served California rolls, Pete's sake.) She rarely took us to a place that wasn't a well choreographed "tour" of a "handcraft workshop" that eventually dumped us into a gift shop. Basically, she took us places where she got a cut of the amount we spent. I wanted to hear about people and history and culture, and she wanted me to spend more money. What she didn't understand that I would have spent much more had I enjoyed myself, had I felt a connection. I felt isolated from the real (current and past) lives of the Thai, separated by cheesy souvenirs and plates of french fries.
|Wat Maha That in Ayuthaya, I wanted to enjoy Thailand but left less than enlightened.|
Happily, in Italy I've had more good guides than bad. In particular, my favorite guide isn't really a guide, per se. My favorite person to show me a new city or sight and to provide the full and proper context is Anna Pasotta from Centro Studi Italiani.
|Anna is on the left, translating at our cooking class|
Anna is one of the co-founders of Centro Studi and four of her six children now run the business. So far this summer, Anna has taken us to Florence, Gubbio, Assisi, and Gabicce. (She's also acted as a translator for many of our business visits within Urbania.) In Assissi, especially, she provided a great amount of information that highlighted the religious and historical significance of sites the city so closely associated with St. Francis.
Every once in a while my lack of Catholic upbringing (which I typically consider a blessing--I'm a very happy Methodist) rears its ugly head. I don't know anything about the Catholic saints. I'll be happily looking at Renaissance art, engrossed and impressed, and I'll suddenly get thrown for a major loop. Why in the world is that woman holding her eyeballs? (That's Saint Lucia; they tell me.) I can't identify the the players by the major symbols of their lives and deaths. (Who's the guy full of arrows? I can't remember if it's Stephen or Ambrose. Oh, well. SEE, lacking context is not cool.) But when we went to Assisi, Anna provided all the context I needed to understand why we needed to see five different churches in one day.
|Statue of Francesco's parents outside Chiesa di Nuova|
|There's a lot to see in Assissi. It's good to start with a plan.|
Before the trip, I had a vague notion that St. Francis was a devout man with an affinity for animals and a connection to the Franciscan order of monks. Thanks to Anna, I now know a lot more. (Just ask BJ; I recited, practically, Anna's entire lesson back to him. Sorry, BJ. I was very impressed with Assisi.)
For the rest of you who haven't spent hours studying St. Francis, here are some highlights.
- He name was really Giovanni. His mother called him Francesco, which meant little French boy in that regional dialect.
- He was the son of a wealthy merchant who first learned his father's trade and made a name for himself as a party boy before he became a soldier.
- After two years of captivity at the hands of the enemy (the nearby city of Perguia), Francesco returned home, ill and introspective. His health recovered but he didn't want to reclaim his life as a merchant and wild child. He wanted to spend his time in reflection and in prayer with God.
- He renounced his father's wealth publicly and obviously. (There are a couple of great stories about throwing money to the poor and even giving away the clothes on his back.)
- A vision encouraged him to repair the church which he first took literally and structurally until he realized his work should be on the spirituality of the church leaders and congregations.
- He was reported to levitate while in prayer.
- He once, again reported, gave a sermon to birds.
- He founded his own order. He inspired a female friend to start her own order. She is now knows as Santa Chiara, and her order is the Poor Clares.
- The Basilica where he is buried is full of beautiful, moving frescoes by Giotta. (Ask me about them later. Naturally, I bought a book. :D)
|Assissi is pretty even without the context|
Now THAT is context--all thanks to Anna. That gave me motivation to explore five churches in one day because I understood the significance of each. Francesco and Chiara are inspiring religious figures because their work was so pure and so devout, and I can't imagine viewing the sites of Assisi without that inspiration.
Seriously, a good guide makes a big difference.
*Thailand was the first stop of a three-week trip, so jet lag can probably be blamed a bit. Also, acculturation to the weather likely factored in. It was SO darn hot and humid. I thought I knew humidity from living in the Midwest and vacationing in the South. I had no idea that in the humidity of Southeast Asia that my hair got big like Monica's from Friends.
|Basilica di San Francesco--where he's burried|
|Santa Maria degli Angeli--where Franceso died|