This blog started out as a series of observations when our family moved to Italy from Manhattan in 2011. The part about staying two years turned out to be famous last words. I still write observations about Italy, but since I spend a lot of time doing illustration now, that gets posted here as well.

This blog is now eight years old and along the way I had to update my theme, so if some of the earlier posts look a little weird, that’s why. The archive, categories, and a follow button are at the bottom of the page. Instagram is just under the blog title.

Please do not distribute or use artworks or photos without permission.

Italy in the time of the coronavirus

The video that turned the tide in Italy. “Distant but united,” by Francesco Sole, music by Ludovico Einaudi. (Partial translation) “We’re all in a small space, but a space that has to be respected…We have realized that the rules for containing this contagion haven’t been respected…We have all messed up: you, me, the government, everyone…This is not a violation of our liberty but instructions for going ahead…You remember that our grandparents were asked to go to war. We’re just being asked to stay on the sofa…Let’s use it to make up for lost time and affections…Everything is still but our brains. Let’s use them more…Knowing how to slow down at the right time is a real victory. Who says you can’t see a beautiful sunset? You can see it in the eyes of those you love…If you can, invest in hospitals…We’re already seeing results…and soon we’ll be saying, “Remember the coronavirus, when we couldn’t even take people by the hand?”
Res (ti amo) a casa. (“I love you,” nested within the words, “Let’s stay home.”)

By now the story of the coronavirus in Italy is well known. You know that we now have the highest infection rate in the world, that we are all quarantined at home, that we have been coming out on our balconies to sing, and that our hospital system is overloaded. What can I add to what is already public knowledge? What follows is by no means a scientific or researched account, just a little personal perspective. If you are already familiar with the basic outline of events, you can skip down past the photos.

I remember that when the epidemic started in China, many Italians vented a long-held prejudice against the Chinese. But other Italians rightly pointed out how ignorant and downright useless this behavior was. In those days, a friend of mine and I went out to dinner in a large Chinese restaurant. There were only three other tables with patrons. In those days, I heard, and corrected, a few conspiracy theories.

On February 20, the first known Italian case of the coronavirus was diagnosed in Codogno, south of Milan, evidently much too late. Within a few days it was spreading so fast that the government had to quarantine the whole Lodigiano, as the area around Codogno is called. All Italy followed the drama, but no one took it terribly seriously. They said it was like a bad flu. The mensa (soup kitchen) that I volunteer for had a Carnival party on the 23rd, and during it the news came out schools were closing and that there would be no mass that week. After that day, people stopped kissing one another on the cheek. Masks and hand-sanitizers disappeared, and a number of price-gougers were arrested. It was too late. You still can’t find either. My husband left early for a long US business trip, thinking he could be quarantined or his flight cancelled if he didn’t go ahead and leave. My daughter and her husband closed their language school. Our hands were all raw from washing.

I remember that during the week people I talked to noted the irony of the region not allowing Ash Wednesday when the restaurants were all full, but the restrictions were supposed to only last until Saturday. We had Ash Sunday instead, and someone joked presciently about postponing Easter. The daily soup kitchen was still open, and we even had the next week’s Sunday mensa gathering, albeit with gloves and more distance. But I noticed that many people thought the first week’s restrictions overblown, and Italians are irrepressibly social, so it seemed like the following week, the first week of March, everyone outside of Lombardia where the epicenter was blew a collective sign of relief and more or less went about their normal life. People were complaining about having no one to take care of their kids because schools were closed, and the government tried to provide a way for at least one parent to stay home. 

That week the numbers blew up. 

I woke up Sunday morning to a message from the US telling me that all Lombardia was shut down. At first I thought there was a misunderstanding. Then I read the local paper and found about about the 2 a.m. press conference and the new decree. I still went for a long walk last Sunday afternoon with a friend, keeping a meter’s distance and only stopping in for a coffee at a small bar after waiting outside for the previous patrons to exit. I remember I walked almost ten miles that beautiful afternoon, and it was a good thing I did. Tuesday I woke up to another message: The whole country was in quarantine for all non-essential movement. Most stores had closed voluntarily by Tuesday afternoon, which is when I went out to stock up on groceries. By Wednesday, the closings were law and you had to have a piece of paper with you stating your necessary destination (subject to verification) in order to go out. I have been at home ever since.

(To read the captions in English, click on the photos and scroll down to look at the comments.)

This week I have been watching the US go through the same learning curve Italy did two weeks ago. Early in the week people were saying it was just the flu and that they were going to travel anyway. Or they were fighting over toilet paper (in Italy we have bidets). Or they were politicizing it in one direction or the other, which just obscured the truth. I was living the truth, watching the numbers of sick all around me climb exponentially (or logarithmically, I never discovered which it turned out to be). I tried not to count the number of times I heard sirens go by in an otherwise silent city, a sound which reminded me of NYC after September 11. But by the end of the week, the message finally seemed to be getting across to Americans. I hope it’s not too late. Italians tested people for the coronavirus from the beginning. In the US, I gather it’s still hard to get a test. That means the numbers are higher than the official total. 

At first many Italians tried to be furbi (the word means shrewd, but it has shades all of its own) and get around the restrictions, but last week a mass exodus of students from Milan towards their hometowns in the south and a simultaneous crowding of the Alpine ski slopes by escaping city dwellers seemed incite a sentiment of public indignation and turn the tide of opinion towards public responsibility. By the beginning of the week, social media was flooded with patriotic memes (especially in support of medical personnel) and people who behaved without considering of the effect of their behavior on others were shamed. This is not to say that all bending of the rules as stopped. A lot of memes I’m seeing this weekend joke about taking the dog out for a walk more than necessary. And then there is the irony of realizing that the best thing you can do to help is just stay home so that the virus doesn’t have anywhere to go.

But what I really appreciate is the creative ways that Italians have kept up their social lives. Although I am at home alone, I have probably been in more contact with people than ever. I am taking illustration courses online and communicating with classmates worldwide via Slack. Americans have written to see how I’m doing, Italians are writing, calling or Skyping daily, and as the world now knows, Italy has invented the balcony flashmob. My favorite flashmob video this week was one in Naples showing a policeman dancing to club music as he stopped cars on a narrow street. People in my staid and elderly Piemontese neighborhood are more reserved, though, and when I went out the balcony to clap for medical personnel yesterday at noon, there were few takers. I still enjoyed the prolonged ringing of the church bells at noon today. And I watched a streaming mass on my computer, using an Ikea step stool as a kneeler. 

Bells rang out all over the deserted city at noon today in a show of solidarity. (And you can hear that I have a chronic allergy of some sort, but it could be much worse.)

That said, this coronavirus is a very serious business. Italy may have been extra vulnerable because it is a densely-populated, extremely sociable, elderly nation and was also the first country in Europe to have a major outbreak. We were the guinea pigs, after China. But the healthcare system here is not backwards or half-hearted. Doctors and nurses are working long shifts and exposing themselves to contagion in hospitals that are beyond capacity because there are staggering numbers of sick. Just today I read an account of a doctor, about my own age, who almost died of the coronavirus but is now recovering. Even he had to wait for a bed to come open. I can’t translate the whole article, but he spoke of suffocating and said he was only able to keep calm because he had already treated so many people with the same illness and knew to trust the doctors. This is not the flu. I hope you and I don’t get sick, but it’s possible. 

The friars at my church are handing out sack lunches to 350 people daily. They don’t have masks. In the past they fed about 200 people daily, but since no one is on the streets to give money to beggars anymore, those who usually rely on pocket change now have nothing to eat. I have a good friend who used to be a friar in Torino but is now in Pavia. He says that he is aware of the risk every day and wears a homemade mask. At his friary they are now handing out dinner sacks as well because so many other mense, or soup kitchens, have closed. He also has to keep the handout line orderly so they don’t get accused of “assembly.” 

Even the local grocery store clerks and food transport workers are at risk, stocking shelves so we can eat. And don’t forget all the people who have no income during this crisis because they are on an hourly wage or own small businesses. My hair may get long, but my stylist has no way to earn money. Thankfully the government is moving the deadlines for a lot of payments, but this very necessary quarantine will have longterm economic effects. 

As the quarantine goes on, and spreads throughout the world, people will react in different ways. I think it’s interesting how each nation reacts in a way that shows its particular character, for good and for ill. I like the stories of humor, creativity, heroism and sacrifice. I don’t like the stories of panic, sneakiness, hoarding, and bickering. And don’t even get me started on conspiracy theories. I don’t think I’m alone in this. This is going to be a long haul, and we’re all in it together. But I can’t wait for the big party we’ll all have when this is over. Come on over to Italy!  If we’re this fun when we’re stuck at home, imagine how happy we’ll be once we can go out again, and besides, we’re going to need all the tourism we can get! 

Merry Christmas!

Baby Jesus escapes and climbs a wiseman’s robe

For December, I have been working on a Christmas image. The theme is “Things that can happen when kids put on a Christmas pageant.” I came up with 45 thumbnails and took several of them a bit further to see how well they would work fleshed out. Then I did three more refined versions of “Baby Jesus escapes and climbs up a wiseman’s robe.” This is the final piece, which I finished just today. There are things I’d still like to change, but I’m out of time for revisions.

Lessons learned: Start earlier next year! (I really need to be packing.) But I already have plenty of ideas for next year’s illustration, so that’s a good start.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, enjoy some time with family and friends and see you in 2020!


In November I participated for the first time in a drawing challenge. Many people know about Jake Parker’s Inktober, in which you produce one ink drawing a day from prompts, but fewer people know about Jake’s SVSLearn co-teacher Lee White’s perfect followup to Inktober–Slowvember. While you make an ink drawing from a prompt every day for Inktober, for Slowvember you work on one piece, of your choosing, for an entire month. Because I am, in fact, slow, I chose Slowvember as my first challenge.

My goals for Slowvember were 1) to experiment with style 2) to have time to complete a background 3) to see what would happen if I gave myself enough time to fine tune after I thought I was finished and 4) to have a finished piece for my portfolio.

I knew right away that despite the month-long time-frame, I was going to have a hard time finishing the challenge because I was going to be away a lot during the first part of the month. In fact, I was in Genoa the whole first week of November. So I decided to use my time there to incubate an idea. The place where I was staying was in itself interesting, as it was located on one of the hills overlooking the old port and was surrounded by terraced gardens. So I spent my free time wandering around the grounds and taking photos.

Another factor: November in northern Italy brings darkness and rain. I don’t just mean a few days of rain and then a break of sun. I mean constant rain–drizzle, steady rain, days on end of pouring rain–from the last week of October until the very end of November. It’s so pervasive that I can remember the one day there was sun–it was Sunday the 17th. The rain, added to the time change at the end of October, mark a distinct change of season and mood which often works itself into my fall images.

Once I got started drawing in mid-November, the process worked like this:

First I did Lee’ style questionnaire and assembled a portfolio of my favorite artists. I recommend this to anyone who is trying to get started in illustration! I won’t post all my work here, but I did come away with the following ideas:

  1. I like to pay attention to characters or the relationships between characters.
  2. My favorite themes are wonder and intimacy.
  3. I tend to like simple and asymmetrical compositions. Often they have a background which is parallel to the picture plane.
  4. I like spontaneous lines and curved lines. I like to see the stroke.
  5. For color: In theory, I like large swathes of neutrals with bright accents. But in reality, I am still a bit confused about color (this played out in my Slowvember piece).
  6. I like the idea of light coming through color rather than from a directional source per se.
  7. I use digital media, but admire a lot of traditional techniques that are hard to produce digitally, such as stone lithography and watercolor. For this reason, I might like to try combinations of traditional and digital media. (I didn’t do this for Slowvember.)

Then I started the drawing/painting process, which is clear enough:

1) Thumbnails: There were my favorites out of about 15 (I didn’t have time for 50 because I started late), on the theme of a child exploring in the rain.

2) Value study: It looks clear enough, so why did my image get so much darker?

3) Color study: Obviously something changed (I accidentally released a saturation clipping mask and liked the result), but the idea of a spot of pink is already there.

4) Painting process

Looking back over the month, I realize that where I often run into trouble is that, in working out the details of the finished painting, I depart significantly from the previous steps. Sometimes this happens for very practical reasons, for example the anatomy and perspective aren’t worked out. But this time big changes happened because at first I wanted to experiment with a cut-out collage, but in the end I tightened up. Then, after I flipped my painting to its mirror image, I realized the whole thing was going downhill. And I made changes at the very end because I wanted to add an element of fantasy. Also I made changes with filters, perhaps too many. Take away: Maybe more of the experimentation needs to happen at the beginning?

The result is that I have a finished piece, but I’m not totally convinced by it. It looks overworked to me. And I also suspect that it is simply too dark. But, as one of the SVSLearn guys said, the point of doing these challenges is that it forces you to put your work up against other people’s work and realize, “This is the best I can do right now.” And that is extremely valuable.

It may be that in another week, or another three months, I will look at my Slowvember piece and see exactly what it needs. Or it may be that what I learned while doing Slowvember will percolate and produce better results in future artwork. But I’m definitely going to try more of these challenges. Because the only way to get better is to give yourself a project, get feedback, and do the best you can today!


These photos are from a day trip I took to Pavia last week to visit another friend. Pavia is a city with a very long and important history, having been the capital of the Lombards, and has a number of Romanesque churches, which I find to be a nice change from all the Baroque ones in Torino.

The most famous of these churches (architecturally-speaking) is San Michele Maggiore. We went inside the church twice, but there was a mass going on both times so I didn’t take photos of the inside. The Italian Wikipedia article has some nice pictures, though.

Pavia also contains the tomb of St. Augustine and St. Boethius (the author of The Consolation of Philosophy, among others). St. Augustine’s remains were moved from Sardinia to Pavia in the early 700s and housed in a tomb that is a masterpiece of Lombard sculpture, even if no one knows exactly who made it. The remains of St. Boethius are in the crypt. The Lombard style church, with its high altar, allowed for a spacious crypt which sometimes looks like a chapel in itself.

We walked around rather quickly and my phone doesn’t take the best photos in the dark, so I apologize for the gaps in my photo selection. I didn’t even take photos of the lovely 16th C. church, Santa Maria di Canepanova, where we went to mass. But Pavia is another great walkable city (along the Via Francigena, no less), and getting there by car makes it a quite doable day-trip from Torino, so I’m glad I went!

A pilgrimage closer to home

This photo is from a different recent trip to Valle d’Aosta, but it does make you want to go there, doesn’t it? Read on…

Despite my recent series of posts about the Holy Land, most of my trips are close to home. I never get tired of exploring the corner of Italy where I live. It has thousands of years of archeological and written history, interesting legends, plenty of nature, and great food and architecture. I feel very lucky to live here.

And as you may have guessed from some my other posts, one of my favorite quick getaways is Aosta, the small French/Italian province just north of Piedmont on the border with Switzerland. It’s culturally different from Piedmont, filled with hilltop castles and mountain valleys, and it’s only a two-hour drive away.

A friend who lives there and likes to walk as much as I do suggested recently that we hike part of the Via Francigena. Most people know the famous pilgrimage trail of Santiago de Compostela, but fewer know the Via Francigena (Fran-CHEE-jen-a), a medieval pilgrimage road that coincides in part with an even older Roman road. The Via Francigena goes from Canterbury through France and the westernmost part of Switzerland, passes over the Alps into Italy at Grand St. Bernard, and then goes right through Aosta, Vercelli (between Turin and Milan), Pavia, Lucca (the link is to my old blog), and down to Rome, and then on to Puglia (Apulia) where travelers once embarked for the Holy Land. During the late middle ages sometimes there would be thousands of pilgrims on the road, so a system of hospitality houses sprang up. Now, of course, there are highways and part of the old road is covered by them, but one can still hike long stretches of the original road.

My friend and I had each been to Grand St. Bernard in the past, so we agreed on a 3-4 hour stretch from Etroubles to Aosta. But someone had told us that St. Rhémy was well worth the trouble, so we decided to start there and then take a bus to Etroubles to start our hike. The day threatened a downpour and we prepared for the worst by taking a backpack with umbrellas, gloves and hats, and dry socks, as well as lunch.

Luckily our bus driver knew just where we wanted to go. He dropped us off in St. Rhèmy-en-Bosses and we immediately saw St. Rhémy up the hill. But we didn’t have much time and the beginning of the path wasn’t obvious. A young woman getting out of her car let us go through her garden and take a shortcut up to the road, so we made it in time to take a fifteen minute hike around the hamlet of St. Rhémy (one street and a group of stone houses plus a church) before coming back down to get the next bus to Etroubles. Timing was important: Weekend bus service isn’t very frequent, so missing the bus would have meant missing the whole hike. But we found the bus parked at the stop and were amused to see the same driver as before emerge from a nearby coffee bar.

Our bus ride took us through St. Oyen, where I had once eaten lunch on the way to Grand St. Bernard, and dropped us off in Etroubles. We had a coffee at a bar to finish off our bus lunch and the proprietor pointed out the beginning of the path, at a covered bridge which locals call the “bruco” (caterpillar). We quickly found the main trail, which soon joined a small canal in what is called the Ru Neuf (new road).

Once we got started walking, our time was very pleasant. The path was clear and fairly level. It didn’t rain, but we were up in the clouds and so the trail had a foggy fairy tale look. And true to the intent of our pilgrimage, we shared spiritual insights and personal concerns, and just to set the tone, I sang a few bars of “Santa Maria Strela do Dia.” What was particularly nice was that, since the path was well marked and we were starting just after lunch, we didn’t much need to consult maps or phones or worry about the time and so got into a nice rhythm of walking and talking as real medieval pilgrims would have. This gave us a visceral sense of what in Italian is called “passo d’uomo,” or “at man’s pace,” that is, a sense of human dimensions in a world of cars, planes and smartphones.

Because we were in this old sense of time, I don’t know exactly what the hour was when we emerged from the foggy fairy tale forrest along the canal and into the open fields again. We briefly admired the ignorance of the local cows with their bells, and started the descent into Gignod, where we stopped for a hot chocolate. One of the nicest things about our pilgrimage, in addition to the sense of living in the present, was the ever changing landscape. We went through a forest, then emerged into grazing land, descended through a town, exited through an apple orchard, and finally proceeded along a paved road into the suburbs of Aosta, arriving almost at my friend’s door before we parted ways with the Via Francigena.

By this time, we had walked about 24 km (over 15 miles) and my middle aged knees were suffering a bit from having made a long, steep descent without training. But we rested a while and then rewarded ourselves with polenta and crespelle (fondue pancakes).

On Sunday, it poured. We went to a contemporary art museum in a castle and then to a deacon’s ordination in the main cathedral. It was mostly sung, sung well and a good bit of it was sung in French. The cathedral was so crowded that we had to sit in a pew behind a column, and sometime while staring at the column I noticed that the black marks on the wood were in upside-down teardrop shapes and bunched together–they were flame marks from candles! For some reason, it comforted me to think of all the generations of people who had worshipped here, just as generations had walked along the road just outside of town. Who knows why they walked, and what prayers they said? But they did, and they still do today.

And, just because I don’t know when I’ll get back to Aosta any time soon, I’ll post a few pictures from another trip there I took recently.

The Holy Land–Jerusalem

Jerusalem as seen from the Garden of Gethsemane, with graves

(This post is the last in a five part series on the Holy Land.)

I confess that this series of blog posts is so late partly because by the time we got to Jerusalem, I had gone into serious sensory overload, which only increased once we reached the Holy City, and found its apex at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I needed a long time to digest Jerusalem, so this is going to be a long post even in concentrated form.

In Jerusalem, one not only hears the call of the muezzin and the church bells, but also the shofar announcing the shabbat. The old city is divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian (an ethnically distinct sect of Christian) quarters.

We went to see the Western Wall, the old market, the Upper Room, the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, Bethesda fountain, the Church of the Visitation in Ain Karem, and many other places, but my main memory is the functional chaos of the Holy Sepulchre (which one reaches, aptly, by traversing the narrow streets and chaos of the market). The church is divided into jurisdictions for all the pre-Reformation Christians sects—Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic and Armenian—each with its chapel and rules for observing the jurisdiction of the others. The Status Quo, in effect since 1852, may seem to illustrate all that is wrong with Christian division. But it also preserves order in a crowded and chaotic space in such a way that everyone knows what to expect.

At no time was this more evident to me than when we celebrated mass on Calvary. For this to make sense, it helps to know that the huge Church of the Holy Sepulcher encompasses all the holy sites of the Crucifixion, including the rock of Calvary (pretty obviously the only outcropping of rock just outside the old city), the Stone of Anointing, and the empty Tomb of Christ. One enters ancient wooden doors of the church into what turns out to be a side aisle, but since everything is cut up and the central (Orthodox) nave is closed off on the sides, it’s hard to tell what you’re seeing. The Stone of Anointing is directly before you, to the left is the dome with the tomb, and to the right, where the radiating chapels of a traditional church are, one can go up very worn and irregular marble stairs to two small side by side mezzanine chapels, an Orthodox one on the left and one Catholic one on the right. It was in this latter chapel that we were permitted to hold mass at 6 a.m. The time slot was so brief the we could do no singing and Fra Francesco had to look at his watch to make sure he didn’t go a second over the allotted time.

On the Orthodox side, there is a jutting piece of the rock, encased in glass and with a metal-rimmed opening, similar to the Star of the Nativity, that pilgrims can touch. Periodically there would be a crinkling sound as pilgrims would pull souvenirs out of plastic bags to rub on the rock in order to create secondary relics. After the mass, some of us went next door to kneel down next to this opening and venerate the spot where Jesus was crucified. We were chased out for a few minutes by an Orthodox entourage, then allowed to return. Later we returned to find an Orthodox liturgy in full swing.

We never could get into the Holy Sepulcher itself because there was always a two-hour wait. Even going during dinner, which had worked in previous years, didn’t help this time. But our lodgings at the Casa Nova were nearby, so we went to the church often and thus became very familiar with it. Some people, mostly members of religious orders, get permission to stay overnight. I really do think that would be the best way to experience the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Another nice memory from the trip is when we went onto the roof of our lodgings after dinner, where we could see the whole city, and Fra Francesco explained the route that Jews during Old Testament times would have taken on their way into Jerusalem, singing the Psalms of Ascents (120-134 or 119-133, depending on the numbering system you use). They were literally ascending into the city. These are among the most beautiful Psalms, in my opinion. And I remember those rooftop visits for good company, panoramic views, the call of the muezzin, and a slightly chilly wind that made me happy to have brought a jacket and scarf.

And a final impression: The Garden of Gethsemane, which still contains olive trees that may have been planted in Jesus’ time, is surrounded by thousands and thousands of Jewish graves which go all down the side of the Mount of Olives, because according to the midrash, at the resurrection the Jews will arise walk into the Holy City (see the photo at the beginning of this post). It brings quite a concrete image to mind.

Now that I have been back for—months now!—and have had time to digest, I ask: Why was the trip valuable? I can think of many reasons, not least of which is that travel always brings context and understanding to things you have heard about from afar, even on an entirely secular level.

On a religious level, one certainly realizes that there are other axes to Christianity than either the America of Evangelicalism or Rome of Catholicism, though the Holy Land is important to all. Now when I hear the gospel read every Sunday, I understand the terrain, how far apart certain places are from one another and how long it would have taken for someone to travel from one to the other. I understand why the owner of a grotto house wouldn’t have wanted to step over his family to get bread from the grotto for his nighttime guest (Luke 11:5-8). I know where Jesus would have met the funeral procession for the widow’s son in Nain, that the way of sowing seed at the time was very wasteful (Matt. 13: 1-23 and others), and what the view is like from nearby Mt. Tabor, where the Transfiguration likely occurred. And celebrating mass on Calvary at 6 a.m. is something I will always remember.

I enjoyed the friends I made and the people I already knew who went with me.

But mostly, I just have a lot of new impressions and I honestly don’t even know what they mean yet. They’re just there, and that’s good enough.

And so to end the series, I leave you with Franciscans singing vespers at the tomb of Jesus, because it seems like a fitting way to end a day and a series. Thanks for reading!

The Holy Land–Samaria

(This post is the fourth in a five part series on the Holy Land.)

The Samaritan day of the trip, though short, was one of my favorite parts. As we left Nazareth and drove towards Jerusalem, the bus driver, knowing that the Muslim Palestinians would be fasting and thinking that perhaps the last thing they wanted to see was a busload of Christian pilgrims, took back roads. Once we even had to turn around. We finally arrived at our restaurant on a very narrow back road. Oncoming cars had to back up, because we couldn’t! The whole area was rocky and isolated. 

At this point we saw a ruined round turret and columns, with sheep feeding nearby, but we didn’t pay much attention at the time because we were hours late and quite hungry. But the lunch was worth it! Our Palestinian host wasn’t hangry, as we had feared, but rolled out the legendary red carpet and fed us naan with tahini and other salads, naan pizza topped with roast chicken breasts (called musakhan, I think), and lovely honey and pistachio dessert whose name I will never remember. We later saw the bakery where I suspect they bought it, in a storefront that looked almost like a garage. All this delicious food was topped off by coffee served from brass pots.

Everyone in our group was curious about the while naugahyde sofa and lounge chairs on a dais at the far side of the room, which we guessed must be for weddings, and our host confirmed they were. We all went from hungry and a little bit apprehensive to grateful and friendly towards our host, and we parted happily.

“What were those ruins along the road?” I asked Fra Francesco as we left. Most likely they were part of Ahab and Jezebel’s palace, he replied. Just like that? Uncared for with no marker and sheep grazing around it? These places require funds, usually provided by foreign universities with large archeology departments, and this area doesn’t even have trash service. So we saw what may be a major archeological site falling to pieces in the middle of nowhere!

The eventual destination of that day’s trip was Jacob’s well, where Jesus would have met with the Samaritan woman, in the basement of an Orthodox church. The church was surrounded by a beautiful walled garden. The rest of the city, Nablus, is in poor repair and along its outskirts are a number of large houses that had been abandoned during construction. Small boys tried to sell us soap as we got off the bus. But, fasting or no fasting, no one was ever hostile to us in Samaria. 

Up next: Jerusalem

The Holy Land–Nazareth

(This post is the third in a five part series on the Holy Land.)

Our trip to Nazareth was by way of Haifa, where Mount Carmel is. If you know the Elijah stories, you may remember that this is where he banished the prophets of Baal, and where he saw the cloud rise from the sea to mark the end of a three-year drought during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. When I saw the blue sea right next to the Carmelite Monastery, it was just one of many instances during this trip in which context became an Aha! moment.

In Nazareth the sandy stone of the buildings was relieved with pleasant gardens of bougainvillea and other aromatic plants and I began to perceive the type of garden beauty native to arid places. Nazareth itself has more trees than the region around Jerusalem, though, and was in fact once surrounded by forests. 

The Church of the Annunciation was also a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting to like it, perhaps because I saw in the guidebook that it was a modern church. And indeed it was non-traditional inside, with a large open space surrounding a lower area with an altar, and behind that, one could see the grotto through a gate. Amazingly there was no one in the church at the hour before dinner, so we were able to sit right in front of the grotto for as long as we liked and meditate. We had been so busy up until that point that I was ready for a bit of meditation, so that hour before the altar inscribed with the words “Verbum caro hic factum est,” (Here the Word became flesh) turned out to be one of my favorite moments of the entire trip.

We also saw the Church of St. Joseph and the House of the Carpenter, and then we went inside a nearby convent (the Sisters of Nazareth) where a woman gave us a tour of what may have well been Jesus’ childhood home. It was a grotto, naturally. It had a narrow door, one that a camel couldn’t fit through, and a tomb under it of the type Jesus would have been buried in, with a round stone, an antechamber, and the burial chamber. The tomb wasn’t large like you see in some paintings, but so low that if you were Peter, you’d have to stoop to enter. Such tombs would almost never have been located next to a dwelling, though, because the dead were considered impure. Unless the tomb was that of a just man like Joseph, perhaps? The whole site was found by accident in the 19th century and subsequent excavations have found varying structures (including a Byzantine church) and periods of use.

We also took a day trip to the now uninhabited site of Capernaum, where there is a house expanded into an early octagonal church, thought to be Peter’s house, which is flanked by a large synagogue which dates after the church. The early Christians in this area would have been in more conflict with local synagogue leaders than with the Romans.

An early octagonal church, thought to be the site of Peter’s house in Capernaum

We saw the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus and Peter had their “Do you love me? feed my sheep” conversation after the resurrection. One thing that struck me this Easter is that in Italian, the gospels make a distinction between Jesus’ “Mi ami?” and Peter’s “Ti voglio bene.” (“Mi ami?” is more exclusive than the affectionate “Ti voglio bene.”) This distinction really doesn’t exist in English, but it’s there in the original text and also in the Italian. Jesus is asking Peter if he can be completely dedicated, but Peter, knowing that he has just denied Jesus, is afraid to commit himself fully. Jesus gives him his trust anyway.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sea itself, which was huge and caressed by gentle breezes on a warm, but not hot, clear day. It was much bigger than I imagined, and across the lake one can see the Golan Heights, the gentile area where Jesus cured Legion and ran a herd of pigs into the sea. 

We also drove to the so-called Mount of the Beatitudes, which is not a certain location, and to Mt. Tabor, which is not named as the place of the Transfiguration in the Bible, but one can interpolate it from the gospel accounts. And we drove past Nain, where Jesus raised the widow’s son.

One also gets a sense of how long it would have taken for Jesus to walk from place to place within Galilee. Seaside Capernaum, for instance, was probably a three days’ walk from the hills of Nazareth. 

The view from Mt. Tabor (note circular fields)

Tomorrow: Samaria

The Holy Land–Bethlehem and first impressions

(This post is the second in a five part series on the Holy Land.)

My first impression upon arriving in Tel Aviv and taking a bus to Bethlehem was of a cloudy silver sky and sand-colored rocks and buildings. The landscape was stark. There were lots of high-rises and few trees.

My second impression was the military presence. I arrived just after a cease-fire during the fighting this spring, which also coincided with the first day of Ramadan. And the first place we went to, Bethlehem, is in Palestine. So the first thing we saw upon entering it was a military checkpoint and the huge and far-reaching concrete wall of separation that keeps Palestinians in their own territory unless they have a special permit. One also inevitably noticed the poverty and lack of garbage service.

Our hostel was right next to the Church of the Nativity. It’s the oldest remaining basilica in the Holy Land, dating from Justinian. Apparently the church was saved from the general sacking of holy sites by the Persians in the 620s because the wise men on an external mosaic were dressed as Persians. The entrance to the church is a tiny door that you have to stoop to enter through. The tiny size was intended to discourage invasion by horseback.

Inside, the main basilica and the grotto of the nativity are Orthodox, so you immediately get the full effect of the iconostasis (a series of icons around the altar) and hanging lamps. The surrounding mosaics include saints who are important to both the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Fra Francesco said the schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism occurred partly because each side had literally forgotten the other’s language. But he also pointed out that we can learn to see the beauty in difference, and that God lives in our contradictions. I had abundant opportunity to meditate on that thought during the rest of the trip.

The grotto itself is below the church. A star marks a spot that pilgrims can touch and kiss as the place where Jesus was likely born. A few steps away there is, in fact, a stone manger. Women in that time and place didn’t give birth in the main lodgings, which were usually built out from the grotto, and the grotto itself would have been used as a stable. So “no room at the inn” may mean that Mary and Joesph were sequestered in the back portion of the lodging so that Mary could give birth. And all of Bethlehem at that time was likely just a group of houses on a hill, what to us would hardly even seem like a town.

Next to the main basilica in the complex is a Catholic church, and next to the Grotto of the Nativity is the grotto of St. Jerome, where we celebrated mass. The liturgy for the mass was Christmas, naturally.

That night we went out for a walk about the town, which brings me to my third impression: The Muslim call to prayer. At 9 pm every night, its plaintive wail blasted from a loudspeaker in the mosque just across the piazza from the church. There were also other such calls, including a short one at 3 am and a longer one at 4 am. The theme of the three major Middle Eastern religions marking out their days with various calls to prayer was a constant throughout the trip.

Other places we visited from Bethlehem were the shepherd’s field (location approximated by nearness to another grotto), the Herodium (the mountain fortress of King Herod the Great), and the Dead Sea, which was about an hour’s drive away. The Dead Sea is a sort of spa, famous for its mud, and our group demonstrated amply that you can bob around like a penguin in the dense salty water. We also (from a distance) saw the cliffs of Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found.

Next I’ll post about Nazareth. Until tomorrow!

The Holy Land–introduction

In May I made a week long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but I’m only just now getting around to writing a series of posts about it, divided into Bethlehem, Nazareth, Samaria and Jerusalem. I think I was giving myself time to digest the trip. Now I realize that I may never digest it all. But I can at least write down a few impressions.

The main thing I noticed on this first trip outside of the US/Europe sphere is all the different cultures and religions that were sharing such a small space. I don’t just mean Israelis and Palestinians, but three major world religions, and the different groups within each religion. I learned just enough to know the political situation is even more complicated than it appears from afar (and that’s already complicated enough), so I will refrain from all political judgments. In fact, I use the term Holy Land to avoid politics and instead focus on my purpose for travel—to see the places where Jesus lived.

Our pilgrimage guide was the (at the time) head friar at my church, Fra Francesco. He’s the only person I’ll mention by name, and I asked his permission to post his picture on social media because there was no way to avoid it. He was an excellent guide and very dedicated to the group. The Franciscans are also the Catholic custodians of the Holy Land, so they manage not only most of the Catholic holy sites, but also manage the hostels that we stayed in. Thus I will be telling my story through a Franciscan lens.

Another thing to know, in case you are expecting a more modern, museum-like point of view while visiting the Holy Land, is that most every archeological site has a church built on top of it—usually the third or fourth church built in succession on the same spot. That’s because these places have been sites of pilgrimage since Jesus’ time, as evidenced by pilgrim diaries at least as far back as the fourth century. And these pilgrims weren’t archeologists, even if some modern Franciscans are. Often they would build a church around a spur of rock, or a grotto. Also, most of the original cities were flattened and rebuilt by the Romans, Muslims, or both. So what you see was usually added a good bit later than the original and you have to extrapolate. 

Another thing to keep in mind, but I’ll get back to this later, is that some sites are managed by different sects of Christians, or even more than one sect. Usually there are Catholics, Orthodox, Copts and Armenians. In addition there are various Protestant churches, though usually they don’t manage the pilgrimage sites. The result can get a little chaotic, and unfortunately even brusque. And nowhere is this more evident than at the Holy Sepulcher, the church with the sites of the crucifixion and burial place of Jesus. 

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at night

Whenever we would visit a site, Fra Francesco would attribute to it one of three levels of authenticity—archeological evidence that makes it quite probably authentic, traditional accounts place it there, or merely a devotional site. So we are pretty sure where Calvary was, but just know the general area of the Mount of the Beatitudes, for instance. 

And lastly, two geological features—rocks and grottoes—form the context for a lot of the stories in the Bible. Almost every site features one or the other, because people in Biblical times used them extensively and many people lived in grottoes. 

The trip followed the chronology of the life of Jesus. So tomorrow I’ll start my account with Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.

P.S.–If you subscribe and got a post about Nazareth, I hid it until it comes out two days from now. This new blog editor is smarter than I am!