Medieval Museum-ing

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Cuxa Cloister, the garden at Ft. Tryon Park, and the medieval kitchen garden at the Cloisters

Now that the girls are at camp, I’ve been spending a lot of my time at the Metropolitan Museum, both the main building on Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters uptown in Inwood.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with the Metropolitan, the Cloisters is a medieval collection combining various architectural elements from churches, monasteries, and other buildings in Europe.  Of course, as it’s a museum, the building is not of one unified style or purpose. But the architecture and artwork are well-integrated enough to give the feeling of being in Europe, perhaps even Italy.

The museum is also in a lovely setting. As I approached the building through Ft. Tryon Park, I could smell dirt, greenery, and lavender coming from several acres of well-tended gardens. The landscape style in the garden is informal–lots of groundcover and a pleasing chaos that is supposed to suggest a wild landscape but isn’t. I was pleased to spot a Nuthatch on one of the trees. On my left was the broad Hudson River (complete with a sailboat) and the Palisades. It gave me a nice feeling of nostalgia, this being one of the three regions in which I feel at home.

Once inside the museum, there are two gardens, Cuxa Cloister (which, being a cloister, is well-integrated with the surrounded indoor space) and the medieval kitchen garden, which is on a terrace downstairs. The kitchen garden is particularly instructive because it contains a lot of medieval plants referred to in literature (and elsewhere) that most people haven’t seen, like rose madder pigment, wormwood, arum (for magic potions), and hops.  And it’s also a pleasant place to rest and watch sparrows fly in and out of the Italian-syle terra cotta roof tiles.

Inside, I have been making sketches.  I seem to be drawn to 13th C. French statues of the Virgin Mary.  I know that sounds specific, but I keep coming back to them again and again.  But also, I’ve been drawing the knight Jean d’Alluye, who went off to the Crusades and came back in 1244 with an Asian sword, which is memorialized in his tomb effigy.  I read somewhere on the museum’s website that at one time the effigy had been turned over and used to bridge a creek. In fact, the number of tombs and sacred objects in these museum can make you wonder if anything in medieval Europe stayed where it was and is still used for its intended purpose, but I can attest that some of it did.

Shown below are some of the statues I like best, and my sketches of them.  I don’t include the sketches because I think they’re particularly good, but because knowing that I plan to post them might make encourage me to keep at it.

I’ll keep going to the museum as long as we’re in the city, so perhaps I’ll post more sketches later.  But since I don’t have a scanner for now, please pardon my sometimes-blurry photos. My connection is slow here, so I don’t always have the patience to keep reloading them.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to meet some friends while I’m here, too, like Julia, Monica and Barbara, who sometimes comment on the blog.  It’s great to catch up with you and thanks for making time for me!

There are captions below the photos:

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1. Gothic chapel in the Cloisters, setting for the tomb effigy of Jean d’Alluye. 2. Close of up the tomb effigy. 3. Quick sketch of the same. 4. 13th C. Virgin statue from Strasbourg, in modern-day Alsace, France.  5. One sketch of the statue, without facial detail since for now it’s giving me fits. 6. & 7. Two favorite statuettes (photo credits Metropolitan Museum, click for details of works) from the main building on Fifth Ave., which also has an excellent collection of medieval statues, reliquaries, and other artifacts.


Tourists in our (former) hometown

Lower Manhattan with the new World Trade Center, which is taller than it looks here

This week our family (and our Italian guest Lara) have been staying in New York City.  It’s Sarie’s and my second trip back to NYC since we moved from here to Italy, but the first in which we have stayed in our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side.  Last year we stayed in a friend’s apartment in the West Village.

This week we’ve mostly been showing Lara around the city, since it’s the first time she’s ever been to the US and she’s excited about seeing New York.  So we’ve done a lot of touristy things that I usually wouldn’t do–like walking around on Fifth Avenue and going into famous stores–and some things that I would do anyway–like going to the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

On Saturday we toured Lower Manhattan. It has been very hot, so we mostly thought about how we could be comfortable and see a lot at the same time. We decided to get a good view of the Lower Manhattan, the newly finished Freedom Tower (or One World Trade Center), the Statue of Liberty, and the neighboring boroughs by riding the Staten Island Ferry. Lara had a great time taking photos to send to her family.  But I couldn’t help but notice that even after twelve years, the World Trade Center makes me sad. I chide myself about this, thinking I’m being maudlin, but the feeling doesn’t go away.

After spending the morning in Lower Manhattan, we went to the West Village for lunch.  Lara was feeling homesick for pizza, and the Village has a good pizzeria.  The minute we entered the restaurant we heard people speaking Italian, and the television was tuned to RAI.  The pizza proved to be quite close to what you’d get in Italy.  It had the desired effect.

At the table next to us, the waitress was chatting with a man who was obviously Italian.  He was wearing a white linen shirt and hat, and next to him sat a little white lap dog.  I took the dog as an indication of how Italian the restaurant was, because New York City has an ordinance against dogs in stores and restaurants, but most Italian establishments have their own dogs. (And it would be very Italian to ignore the ordinance.) We may have spoken a few words with the man early in the meal, but towards the end he realized that Lara was Italian and we ended up having a thirty-minute conversation about all sorts of things, from his life in New York to the prospects of young Italians. Lara noted later that most of the time, Italians from one city don’t feel that much kinship with those from another city (the man was from Rome). But when they meet somewhere else, they’re all Italians.

Meanwhile, Sarie made friends with the dog, who ended up licking her in the face.


Lara speaks Italian mostly, so she, Sarie and I spend whole days speaking almost nothing else.  As a result, I have had a tendency to turn to whomever we’re speaking to in whatever shop, restaurant or museum I’m in, and not make the language switch. I’m sure this is because I’ve gotten used to speaking Italian to all strangers. But it’s still embarrassing, especially since I’m in my own country. I have a new admiration for the many New Yorkers I know who are completely fluent in two languages and can also switch.

During the week, we’ve had some conversations about what it would be like if we could combine the best of New York and Italy.  I like New Yorkers’ sharp wit, talent, and the “you never know what will happen next” wackiness of living in Manhattan. But I like Italian warmth, elegance and hospitality.  If you could have both in one place, it would be ideal. But we finally concluded that these traits may be mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, a couple of nights ago, I asked Sarie what she thought of New York now that she has been away for almost two years.

“I never realized before how weird the people were,” she replied immediately. “Of course, I knew it, but I was so used to it that I didn’t think about it.”

I burst out laughing.  I had just written in my journal: “There are a lot of truly eccentric people in this city.  I did know that already, but that’s what strikes me after being gone for two years.”

Water, water everywhere

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Whatever else you can say about this trip to Georgia, there has been a lot of water involved:  so far we’ve been kayaking in the Oconee river, boating in Bob’s parents’ pond (where there is currently a large beaver lodge), doing whatever you do in a water park, and swimming in two pools (with rumors of a third).  Often when we are in the water it is either raining or threatening to rain. But there’s a plus side of the South’s rainiest summer in recent history: Everything is a lovely, vivid green even in July.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, the Frisbee did occasionally land in the pool!

In Georgia

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We made it to Georgia!  This trip to the US is different from most because we have one of Sarie’s Italian friends here with us.  Her presence is helpful for us, because we have a good reason to converse in Italian.  But it’s good for our friend, because she gets to hear a lot of English.  We tease her that she’s going to go home with a drawl.  Thankfully, she’s a very good sport.

Yesterday the girls and I spent the afternoon in downtown Athens with my sister.  Among other things, we visited a friend’s jewelry store.  But it wasn’t the jewelry that was the main attraction; it was the my sister’s friend’s sugar gliders.  Sugar gliders are tiny marsupials that look a little like  a cross between lemurs and flying squirrels.  The “sugar” part of the name is because they like sweets. As we found out yesterday, that includes coffee.

We’ll be in the US for six weeks.  More to come!