Castle Summer

Italy closes for vacation in August. With no air-conditioning, it’s impossible to do anything, so most everyone goes to the beach. I prefer the mountains, so when I get back from the US I escape to the Valle d’Aosta, near the French and Swiss borders, whenever I have the chance. So now, in late September, here’s all this year’s Aostan castle posts rolled into one.

Valle d’Aosta is mountains, slate roofs, wood carving, polenta, fontina cheese, and castles. Its French town names, such as Quart and Nus, were originally names of Roman military outposts that morphed during the centuries in which Aosta looked more towards France than Italy. Today most people speak Italian as their first language. But the region is officially bilingual and there are a lot of French tourists. Valle d’Aosta also has its own dialect, Valdotaîn.

The Valle d’Aosta regional website lists 22 towers or castles, and truly they do seem to dot every hill along the valley. They range from pillaged ruins to fully restored manors with some original furniture. Some are open all year, but many are only open for a limited period during the summer. Most of them originate from the first millennium or shortly thereafter and have undergone many modifications. One, Forte di Bard, was featured in the opening scene of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Most of these castles were originally built by various members or relatives of the Challant family, who were vassals of the Savoys (the future Italian royal family). They were almost like a system of toll booths, providing safe passage for people, goods and news across the Alps and into the Piedmont region and beyond. And that mattered a lot in those days, so perhaps it helps to think of them as the Mark Zuckerbergs of an analog information highway.

The castles I visited this summer were Fénis, Issogné, Verrès, Sarre, and Cly. Giving a detailed history of each castle would take way too long, though, so instead I want to write briefly about what interested me in each place.

You can click on these photos to enlarge or read the captions.

I’ll start with Cly, because it is a ruin, little modified by later additions. It sits on its hill looking like something out of a Wordsworth poem, its internal walls now almost indistinguishable from the outer ones. Upon entering, you see a lot of grass and large piles of stone, because the last owner used the castle for scrap. But slowly the outlines of a typical medieval castle appear. The donjon, from where we get the English word dungeon, was not a basement prison but a tower one, and it’s still standing. It could only be accessed by a removable ladder, but it had open windows, so people sometimes escaped. Nearby is a small chapel with a rounded apse, with traces of frescoes remaining, and up against the south wall of the castle (for warmth) was a series of rooms used as living quarters by the lords of the manor. Now only outer walls, punctuated by large fireplaces, remain. Other areas included a judicial hall, stables, and on the north side for coolness, food and wine storage. Far to the west side of the castle was the cistern, also very important during a siege. Cly is only visitable in short guided tours (only during August, I think).

Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of the fireplace or furniture inside Fénis.

Fénis also looks typically medieval, and is perhaps the best furnished of the castles.   One of my favorite features of Fénis is an enormous fireplace, so big you can stand in it and look way up to a tiny opening at the top. At one time this fireplace was furnished with wooden beams used for smoking meat. The courtyard is also famous, with its elaborate Jacquerian frescoes comparing the lord of the manor to St. George, and a giant St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) saluting guests as they left the premises. The crenelated walls were reconstructed in the 19th century and aren’t entirely accurate, but the effect is charming.

Verrès, by contrast, is austere. It’s a box fort that anticipates later Renaissance forms, built high on an imposing, windswept outcropping, and almost devoid of decoration. There is no furniture in the castle today, but I love the medieval technological adaptations that remain. Next to the main dining room on the first floor (second floor by American reckoning) there is a kitchen with a pass-through window, two huge fireplaces for cooking, and cabinets built into the stone walls that could be used as warming drawers or ovens. In an extension of the kitchen on the other side of the dining hall, servants congregated around another fireplace and a door opens to yet a another cabinet, this time built into an outside wall–it was a refrigerator, or maybe a freezer, depending on the weather!

The main bedroom on that floor has small toilet closets on the outside walls, with exposed holes that empty straight down into the yard below. The presence of more than one toilet suggests that several people slept in this room, but all I could think about was how cold it must have been inside those closets! In fact, the guide kept emphasizing the cold and discomfort, adding that the owner applied all lessons learned in constructing a more welcoming castle at Issogné down in the valley. Certainly Verrès was a barren and imposing place, and given its location I would imagine it was isolated as well. I can only guess that people must have gotten on each other’s nerves during the winter!

Issogné is the prettiest of the castles and like Fénis, well-furnished. I have a hard time imagining it as a siege-type castle, but inside the courtyard are lovely porticoes with frescoes depicting all the aspects of medieval life that the Challant family presided over in the nearby town. The table is set for dining and there is a large chapel furnished with frescoes and an altar. There is also a small frescoed chapel off one of the bedrooms, because apparently the bedroom was occupied at one point by a clerical member of the family. The beds have draperies, the walls have warm patterned designs or frescoes and the ceilings are coffered and painted.

Sarre was, I thought, an anomaly. It began as a medieval castle, but its history is obscured because it was bought by the Savoys in the mid-19th century for use as a hunting lodge. The main halls are decorated in ornate frescoes adorned with real mountain goat skulls and horns–hundreds of thems. The castle was at that moment exhibiting clothing worn by the last Savoy Queen, Margherita, a beauty whose husband, the king, designed her wedding dress. The clothing displayed is elegant, but combined with the skulls and the royal couple’s complicity with Mussolini, the effect is disquieting. I also got a feeling we were looking at the royal family’s bric-a-brac. My favorite part of the tour was the anecdote that the person who bought the castle was originally instructed to buy the fairy-tale castle of Aymavilles across the river, but got his directions mixed up and bought Sarre instead.

There are other aspects of Valle d’Aosta that are well-worth recounting, and other castles closer to home that certainly merit a post, but I’ll save them for another day. Meanwhile, September has come and almost gone, and the temperatures still haven’t gone down to my satisfaction yet, but it’s back to work! A presto!

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Imago Christi premiere!

Imago locandina A2

After four years of filming, Sarie and Alberto’s film Imago Christi is finished! It took four years because they had extremely little money and relied entirely on volunteers. During those four years they also finished school, got married, and opened an English school, just to hit a few highlights. Naturally they developed all kinds of abilities related to filmmaking as well.

The story is about a band of men who are hired to transport a secret cargo from Chambéry in France over the mountains to Turin in 1578. One man in particular, Leonardo, is good with a sword, but he has dark past. Can he be trusted? I won’t say more for now, but the film is based on historic events that took place in and near the Valli di Lanzo, where they live.

If you want to see lots more photos and updates from all throughout the making of the film, you can see them and follow the film on Facebook. I’ve also posted the trailer below, and remember that you can turn on English subtitles at the bottom right. The first screening will be on July 14 in the town of Lanzo, where much of the filming was done. I hope they find many more opportunities for it!

Nina comes to life…

Nina pushing
Basta con questi sfondi bianchi! Sono noiosi!

The past couple of weeks have included a lot of my own “life,” which though fun and even important at times, meant I didn’t draw as much as I would have liked. I’ve been doing some experiments in traditional mixed media, but…nah. So on Saturday, just for fun I developed a quick digital sketch that I had started months ago with the same character from a previous post. This time I used the Gouache a Go Go brush.

In many ways, this drawing was a lesson in how not to work efficiently! I wanted to play around with puppet warp and adjustment layers, but I applied them too soon, so afterwards it was hard to make corrections without ruining the effect. Then the character looked too old, so I enlarged her head after the fact. All throughout I found myself coloring willy nilly over my black outline drawing. I thought I wanted outlines, but maybe not! And then, even though I think figure drawing is one of my stronger points, in this drawing everything came down to whether I could invent convincing anatomy on the spot, because I didn’t want to be too dependent on reference. I’m sure I’ll see all the mistakes tomorrow…

But I like that this drawing fits my character. I imagine this girl, whom I call Nina, as energetic and full of mischief but still empathetic, so while sometimes she might find herself in trouble out of sheer exuberance, she doesn’t mean to cause any harm. I got this pose from a stick figure, but I think that now that I’ve made it into a full drawing, it fits her.* She’s neither a doll-like little girl nor a super heroine, but a real child. She is based on many different little girls that I see in my neighborhood. Whether she’s about four like in the last drawing, or a bit older like in this one, remains to be seen.

I’m also pretty sure she has other clothes than an origami dress and day-glo green plastic rain boots, but that can wait. For now, I’m working on brushes and poses. But next I’d like to try an environment and a bit of back story. Wish me luck!

*I added a caption. Want to guess what it means? Or better yet, make up one of your own?

Keeping focused

It was only natural that after the end of the SVS Turbocharging Your Creativity course, the Bologna Book Fair, and Easter, I would have to deal with a bit of reality.

First there are American taxes. As an expat, I do get a bit of an extension, but it’s only because documents come out so late in some countries (like Italy). And those who owe, still owe in April. But the requirements–oh my! My days using simple filing software are over. I’m getting somewhat used to the routine, but still, the US is the only country in the world with a citizenship-based tax requirement, and nothing is simple about expat taxes. I have to file in both countries each year, and to keep all the requirements straight I have to hire an accountant (in reality a tax lawyer) versed in international taxation. Don’t get me started…

And then there’s the Indagine ISTAT. Funny, everyone’s reaction when I told them about it has been, “Are you sure that’s not a hoax?” If only it were! Basically I’ve been chosen at random to fill out a 45-question (plus subsections) survey from the Italian government for myself and another for my husband, based on everything from what we eat for breakfast to our opinions on the rail system–which everyone knows depends on whether you take the lovely but expensive Frecce or the cheap and dirty regional trains. Supposedly the survey data is kept secret, but it looks pretty identifiable to me. And there’s a hefty fine if you don’t turn it in. Bleh.

And there are the usual teaching, housework and errands, some personal matters, and another one of those week-long, pouring-down rainy spells. When it rains here, it rains.

But I am determined not to let annoyances plow me under where illustration is concerned. I’m reviewing all my course materials, my Bologna notes, and trying to keep drawing at least something. It’s bound to happen, even for successful professionals, that sometimes between all the things one has to do to keep afloat, it’s hard to keep focused. That’s when motivation, a routine, and incremental progress are more important than ever.

So here’s one of today’s exercises (below)–turning figures. My default is something akin to realism–must be my portraiture background. It’s not perfect, but that’s not the point. Happy drawing everyone! Or cooking (I’m making lentil soup for dinner), or working, or whatever you’re doing today…


The Bologna Book Fair–an illustrator’s glimpse

IMG_8575

Bologna at night. (Apparently I needed to clean my phone lens.)

I got back from my first trip to Bologna and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Thursday afternoon. Even my initial impressions on the book fair are lengthy, but I will try to be as concise as possible. Just to be clear, this was my first children’s book fair ever and I purposely didn’t take a portfolio with me. Instead I went to get an idea what it was about so that when I was fully ready, I would be more effective in presenting my work. And even on the other side of the fair, I don’t regret this.

Since I always like to get the big picture first, that’s what I’m going to try to concentrate on, and then give a few specifics only where I think I can do so briefly. Because the Book Fair is overwhelming. I saw thousands of people there each day and in most cases I wouldn’t even know whether they were even the same thousands of people or different ones!

Also, a caveat: Everything I know about the fair is strictly from a beginning illustrator’s point of view.

Layout

There’s an illustrator’s wall around the periphery of the main hall where artists can tape up their work for others to come and see. It’s chaotic, and by the second day people were leaving things on the floor. I was told that publishers do actually come look at the wall, but it doesn’t seem to me that it would put any artist’s work in the best light, or at least it would be hard to get noticed. Again, that’s just a first impression, and I’m one of those people who even avoids large outlet stores, so that might explain my reaction in part.

The central hall includes the juried art show, a book shop, some exhibits, and a stage called the Illustrators’ Café for prize and other presentations. In general, I liked the Illustrators’ Café because even if you couldn’t get close, you could still back up to see and hear what was going on. Surrounding the central hall were several huge exhibition corridors (think airport terminal-size) with booths for every major publishing company, artists’ and writers’ associations, and art schools from many countries.

Services for Illustrators–portfolio review

The Illustrators’ Survival Corner is where the masterclasses, workshops and portfolio reviews for illustrators take place. Masterclasses are talks by publishers, associations and illustrators for anyone who wants to just show up and listen, if you can squeeze in. Workshops require sign up first thing each morning because one creates artwork, and that naturally limits space. Portfolio reviews are highly coveted spots for illustrators to get professional feedback. In the end, I did not participate in any of the activities that required sign up, but got a good bit from the masterclasses. Here’s why:

The portfolio review and workshop signup is positively Darwinian. When you arrive in the morning, well before the opening at 9:00 am, there are already hundreds of people outside waiting. The people from orderly countries are waiting in line. The ones from furbo (an Italian term for people who know how to get what they want) countries are finding a way to sneak up to the front. At any rate, on the one occasion I tried to sign up for a workshop, I was in the front part of the crowd at the door, and even so, when I got upstairs to the sign-up desk the line was already long, and the spots few. Someone told me that somehow people were getting in before 9:00 am, and I also saw a video taken from the sign up desk, proudly posted on the Bologna Facebook group, no less, of people sprinting for the desk at opening! It seems that you not only have to be an excellent artist to use this system well, but fairly athletic and also a bit aggressive.

There are some open portfolio reviews each day as well, but a friend waited in line at one for two hours (with a massive headache) only to be told that it was closing and they wouldn’t be seeing anyone else. She was able to get a scheduled spot on a different day, but the reviewer didn’t give any feedback. But other people got feedback, and the feedback varied with who gave it, so apparently some of it just depends on who looks at your portfolio. To give some idea of why these reviews are so coveted, some of the reviewers are from big publishing houses or are famous illustrators such as Laura Carlin. With opportunities like that, if I had felt really ready with my portfolio, I would probably have run to the sign up too!

Still, someone told me that the system at the SCBWI conferences in places like New York have big tables where everyone can put out their whole portfolio and business cards, and that people actually do come by and take them. That seems fair to me. The Bologna system seems, well…Italian. I love many things about my adopted country, but trying to make my way through a line is not one of them.

Services for Illustrators–Masterclasses

Author/illustrator Chris Riddell in the Illustrators’ Café

I did enjoy the masterclasses. In all but one very regrettable case, I did fairly well at getting to the event early or at least finding a place to stand in the back where I could see and hear. And you never know when someone might lose interest and leave, opening up a better spot.

Among the masterclasses I attended were: A talk by an Italian editor and first-time illustrator on what it’s like to work together on a first book, a talk by an illustrators’ association on pricing work and negotiating contracts, a New York Times talk on trends in children’s books, more than one talk in which an illustrator talked about his or her work (I particularly enjoyed the one by Tiziana Romanin), and a charming illustrate-as-you-talk chat by Chris Riddell. I enjoyed the last one so much that I went back for a similar event at the Illustrator’s Café. Never mind that only Chris Riddell could pull off some of the ways of getting work that he talks about, because he is already so famous. He is a great raconteur with a British wit, and he made me remember how, when I was a small child watching Romper Room and Mr. Rogers, my favorite segments were always the ones where someone would draw on screen and tell stories.

What Chris Riddell was drawing at the above moment…

It helped that I speak both Italian and English, because some of the talks were only given in Italian and those often had more room. The regrettable exception I hint at above was the masterclass given by Beatrice Alemagna, who is apparently not only one of my favorite illustrators, but seemingly the favorite illustrator of most everyone in Italy. I lost track of time in one of the publishers’ halls, arrived ten minutes late, and not only couldn’t get close enough to peak over anyone’s head (I’m not tall), but couldn’t even hear a word of what she was saying, despite speakers, because of all the ambient noise. Next year I’m setting phone alarms!

And then there was the day in which I repeatedly walked into masterclasses and conferences for which there were not enough simultaneous translation headsets, or for which there was supposed to have live translation but wasn’t. This is how I discovered that I still understood a passable amount of French, but not quite enough for comfort. Same thing with Spanish to a lesser extent.

Other talks

Possibly the most helpful and informative talk I listened to during the whole book fair was the NY Times presentation on their Best Illustrated Children’s Books award. This was a three-hour presentation during which I sat on the floor the entire time, trying not to lean too hard against a loudspeaker stand and thus cause an embarrassing incident. The upside of my discomfort was the I was sitting less than three feet from the aforementioned Beatrice Alemagna, and not much further from Sydney Smith, another of my top five illustrators, and at a similar distance from Suzy Lee, Laura Carlin and Paul Zelinsky, who are equally talented to the first two but I have to choose somehow. They are all past prize winners.

The New York Times illustrators’ panel, presided over by the Times’ s children’s book editor Maria Russo, center

The presentation included a history of the award and how it is chosen (unlike the Caldecott, it is open to illustrators worldwide and is chosen by artwork only), an editorial panel who spoke about their experiences with these illustrators, and comments by the illustrators themselves. Since I have followed this award and the NY Times for years, I found the whole conference very informative, though space won’t allow me to go into detail about it for now.

My only regret was that this time Beatrice Alemagna spoke in French instead of Italian, and I didn’t have a headphone. Zut! Apparently I just wasn’t fated to learn much about Beatrice Alemagna, except that she was self-taught and everyone wondered why she would write a book about someone doing nothing (The Magical Do-Nothing Day).

Publishers

I spent most of the last day just walking the publishers’ halls and trying to get an idea who published what, but it was overwhelming and I still have to sort it out. It’s not one day’s work, that’s for sure. Some of the major American publishers had booths that were as big as a book store and obviously designed by an interior design firm specializing in display (I have some experience in commercial interiors). And some of the publishers have their own portfolio reviews. I left the hall with a very full backpack, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the day I ended up having to walk up Via dell’Osservanza (a second-gear-all-the-way-up kind of hill) on foot! But I don’t mind exercise.

The illustrators’ exhibition

The illustrators’ exhibition had very interesting work from very talented illustrators, and it was especially nice to see how some of the artists worked precisely and intricately in traditional media, but for the most part, it looked as though it were more intended for artists than children. Often I couldn’t find much of a narrative thread in the works. Book illustration can be overly commercialized or sentimental in many cases. But I think the most endearing (and enduring) illustrations for children themselves are somewhere in between the two extremes.

Odd and ends, and tips for next time

During the fair I stayed at my friend and catechist Fra Pietro’s Franciscan friary. It’s up on a (second-gear) hill outside of town, and therefore, unlike at home, the friars mostly go out to serve instead of having people come to their doors. So it almost feels more like a monastery inside. The friars were welcoming and it was very peaceful to come back to, but it was a long way from the fair and more importantly, you can’t enter the city by car until after 8:00pm, which is when buses stop, causing traffic to stand still. This makes going out for dinner in the center quite difficult. Also, parking for the fair is €20 per day. So next time I go, I may try to find a place within walking distance and then go pay Fra Pietro a separate visit.

An Italian friend who was only there on the first day showed me an internal restaurant that not everyone knows about (you can’t leave the fair and return, and the traffic situation eliminated grocery shopping for lunch). So by eating light and supplementing with snacks I’d brought from home, I made out pretty well for lunch. But the lines for coffee after lunch were so long that I went without. Finally on the last day, I discovered a downstairs coffee bar inside the restaurant. The only catch is that you have to get lunch fairly early, which was fine with me because I prize a few minutes to regroup.

Amazingly, for a book fair that offered a free app and at which most everyone was constantly messaging each other and taking photos of artwork, I never found a charging station and so I had to use my aging phone sparingly. On the last day someone told me that they had seen people under a table in the Chinese exhibition charging their phones. But next time I’ll buy and take one of those battery packs.

A Bologna city center street in the market area

I had originally planned to return to Torino on Thursday morning, but since I hadn’t seen much of the city center yet, I took a walk first. Bologna couldn’t be more different in style than Baroque and Neo-Baroque Torino. It’s medieval, with narrow streets and a lot of brown brick or orange stucco buildings. The impression from the hill above is of a circular red mass punctuated by towers. And as I walked and drove around, I realized that it had once been ringed by a brick wall, now torn down but with broken bits still extant. Because of the traffic, motorcycles are very popular. And it is home to the oldest university in the world, the original Alma Mater. I always like getting to see a new Italian city!

Meanwhile, I met some really interesting people at the book fair, saw a lot of excellent artwork, and got a sobering reality check about where the level of my own work needs to be. But all of that is exactly what I wanted. The rest is up to me, and to both how hard, and how smart, I am willing to work.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

Re-start…

After my last post in (ahem) October, I wrote a draft about another outing. It required me to fact check some history, so naturally I never posted it. And then I didn’t post for almost six months. I was also sort of in an “should this be an illustration blog or an Italy one”? quandary. And then I just got busy.

But I’d like to continue. So here are my temporary guidelines, and we’ll see how it goes:

It seems best to start from a personal take on things. Subjects are secondary.

I’m going to try short entries for a while so as not to get bogged down. I’ll try to post neither too many nor too few.

So to re-start, here is my short, “what I’m doing” catch up:

During the day (and sometimes at night), I am taking an illustration course. My main frustration with my illustration is my own perfectionism. I don’t like my starts and so I leave them unfinished. And the style smorgasbord is paralyzing. Maybe it’s a matter of just having to do enough work to get through the ugly stuff. Realizing all this, I signed up for a course with feedback and deadlines to hold my feet to the fire. This turned out to be a great idea. It has also kept me quite busy, but what could be better than improving at the thing I want to do professionally, if I can manage it?

Aside from illustration, I teach English sometimes. Most Americans who live in Italy do now and then. And I don’t mind it because it gets me out among people and makes me look at my own language in a whole new light.

I am also pleased that to have finally become fluent in Italian. Although the more I learn, the less sure I am what the definition of fluent is. I certainly don’t speak like a native.

And finally, I love my life in proximity to the local Franciscan friars and my volunteer group. They’ve been a big part of my life for the past four years, ever since I showed up there one day looking to do some volunteering. It’s just that it’s hard to write about my friends while still respecting their privacy. In fact, I even removed the one post from years back in which I described some of the soup kitchen guests in detail. But I am happy there.

Back to illustration homework for now. But more soon, I hope!

At the top of the Roman world, monks to the rescue!

It’s that time of year when Italians flee en masse to the shore. Cities are hot ghost towns with few stores or restaurants open. Since I took my summer trip to the US early, my intention upon my return was to settle down and get some work done. Yet this week it was so quiet (and hot) that it was hard to concentrate.

So when a friend called and offered a day trip to the mountains near Aosta, I jumped at the chance. I admit that just escaping the heat would have been motivation enough, but my friend Ben has a particular talent for getting to know strangers, often with interesting results. Besides, he wanted to visit a monastery high up on an Alpine mountain pass where he had done an archeology dig 20 years ago. Everything about the trip called me to join in.

Our group (Ben, his wife and baby son, and a common friend) ate lunch on the way up to the pass at a rustic stone restaurant perched on the side of a steep incline, its balconies lined with bright red geraniums. Naturally Ben knew the restaurant owner, an extroverted man with white curls and sparkly blue eyes who was aptly named Felice. We sat down on the terrace to a perfect Aostan lunch–mushrooms in cream, chestnuts in honey with lard, soft toma cheese with hazelnuts sprinkled on top, melon, and mocetta (a lean cured meat), among other things. And that was just the appetizer course! Then came gnocchi wrapped in strings of melted fontina, and polenta accompanied by sausage, veal, and rabbit, the last of which was cooked in a mustard sauce. After lunch we split a homemade tiramisù, then drank the obligatory coffee required to be able get up from the table, and complementary homemade genepì as a digestivo. I really would have been perfectly happy with the day just as it was.

Our view from the terrace at lunch

But then we drove up and just across the Swiss border to the Col, or pass, du Grand-Saint-Bernard, named for the founder of a monastery that has ministered to pilgrims there since 1050. This monastery replaced an even an older one nearby which had been destroyed during the Saracen invasions. And before that, the Romans ran a hotel of their own on the site. The pass is so high up that it’s closed for much of the year, with the snow sometimes reaching the second story of the monastery so that the monks have to ski out the windows. Modern travelers usually cross the Alps in winter by tunnel.

But August is high tourist season. Most people come to hike and to see the place that gave the world the St. Bernard rescue dog (some dogs remain there in summer, but now rescues are made by helicopter). Helping stranded travelers is still part of the monks’ vows. And they still risk, and at times even lose, their lives when people hike precariously along the crumbly schist rock or get trapped in the deep snow. We met one of these monks, a friend of Ben’s from his archeology days.

The Roman road (top) and the adjacent foundations of the temple to Jupiter (bottom)

On the Italian side of the monastery, Ben pointed out the old Roman road through the pass, dug out of the rock, and the remains of a temple to Jupiter (the high altitude made the site a sort of Mt. Olympus of the Roman Empire). Most of the temple’s stone had long since been re-appropriated, leaving only traces of foundation and steps carved into the side of the mountain, as well as a human skeleton of unknown origin. On the far side of the monastery and around the peak towards Switzerland, a vast valley opened up with nothing in it but a winding road, some hiking trails, and a sort of ventilation tower for the long mountain tunnel underneath. Here Ben led us to the other site his team had excavated, the Roman hotel. There was still lots of Roman terra cotta scattered about, and the team had discovered Celtic beads there as well.

The Col de Grand-St. Bernard may not be the pass that Hannibal came through with his elephants, but it was certainly used by Napoleon, and was described by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Above, Ben shows me a piece of Roman terra cotta at the site of the archeological dig.

Once the monastery ran a hospice for pilgrims stopping along the Via Francigena, a medieval road from Canterbury to Rome. Now it’s more of a starting point for local hikers. But some of the the hikers we saw that day were also modern day pilgrims, attending the French-speaking evening mass in the basement chapel, its low, vaulted ceiling lit by constellations of tiny halogen lights. My French was so rusty that I could only follow along because I knew what was coming next.

One of the texts from the monastery’s library

We had hoped to eat dinner there, but the refectory was full of hikers and we were out of daylight, so we went home. Even though summer tourists at peak season had overwhelmed the dining room, Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard still felt like an outpost. It’s so inaccessible in winter that the monks have to rely on stored provisions and anyone of their order who dies has to be kept in a nearby outbuilding until the ground thaws enough to bury them. I can only imagine what it must have looked like centuries, even millennia, before, when it was the only place of welcome anywhere around.

Here’s a video (from the hospice’s website linked above) with a nice overview of the monastery, in French with English subtitles. You even see Ben’s monk friend Frederic sitting at the refectory table!

In which I buckle down and get to work

I’ve been sort of a hermit lately. Well, I did go to the Langhe wine region with friends last Sunday, and I’ve been chatting with people on the phone, and I’ve been to mass, and I’ve gone to various appointments. But in general I’ve been leading a very simple existence and using the time and headspace created to get some art done.

Scenes from the hermitage: Watching illustration tutorials while eating leftovers. The flowers are my overgrown chives. I also made pesto from my balcony basil. 

On Wednesday night I printed out over 50 pages of documents for a patronato appointment. Perhaps I can get my carta di soggiorno (long term immigration card) in time for my trip to the US in August. And unlike the permesso di soggiorno, it doesn’t have to be renewed. You have no idea how glad that makes me.

As part of the carta process, someone had to come to my apartment to make sure it was big enough for me to live in. Such an odd concept. Next I have to get a document that shows I’ve never been in jail. And then there was the three-month-long process of getting American documents officially translated and stamped by the uncommunicative Italian consulate in Miami. The carta di soggiorno has opened up new horizons in bureaucracy.

But mostly, I’m sitting at home with my new Cintiq (which I have never figured out how to get to run at 4K, by the way), lassoing my way through three iterations of Princess Carla of Spaniel. I set myself a deadline of today, which means I’ve had to let go of a good bit of perfectionism, but it does make me feel good that I have set a goal and accomplished it.

My first color comp is the scheme of the original painting. The second one was inspired by a Downton Abbey still. (I think I haven’t realized the potential of this scheme yet.) The third? Grand Budapest Hotel! I’ve discovered there’s a whole world of color study via film stills, which I’m pretty sure was part of the point of this assignment. That and learning to use the lasso and gradient tools. And I learned a third lesson as well: If you want to get something done and move on, don’t choose an iridescent Velasquez dress.

To muff or not to muff? That is the question…

There’s more to do on this project, for sure. But one thing at a time. Maybe soon I’ll even get around to posting some photos of the most famous wine region in the world outside the Loire Valley.

 

Thanksgiving Monday

I was going to post about illustration today, but my drafts kept turning into Thanksgiving posts, so here goes:

I took last week off to catch up on errands and prepare Thanksgiving dinner. I find that studying illustration, like any other work, leaves me falling behind in the rest of life. So, for my week off I had such tasks in mind as doing a shopping run at one of the big suburban grocery stores, getting my Christmas tree from IKEA, and registering for my A2 level Italian language test for immigrants, in addition to food prep.

Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the rainiest week since we moved into this apartment five years ago. The rain started out as an inconvenience, but by Thursday it had become alarming and by Friday the rivers were so high that the tour boats came unmoored and wrecked themselves against the city’s main bridge across the Po. The  city’s trains were in such a snarl that the transit authority actually called off a planned strike, whether out of mercy or because they figured no one would notice it anyway, I don’t know. Sarie missed three days of work due to the flooding.

Against this chaotic backdrop, catching up on my postponed errands took a good bit of willpower, but I plowed through them anyway. The immigration process will eventually get a new post of it own, no doubt. I’ll just say that I had hoped that going to the patronato during a flood meant that it would be less crowded. I was wrong.

Meanwhile I had planned out an elaborate staging process for cooking Thanksgiving dinner–Making broth and pie crust on Thursday afternoon after the patronato; making egg bread for dressing, pie, corn pudding, preparing the table setting, transplanting the tree, brining the chicken, teaching my English student and making dinner for Sarie and Alberto on Friday;  baking the dressing, cooking the beans, preparing fruit and cheese, setting the table, and many other last minute tasks such as chilling the wine, reheating the other dishes, and making whipped cream for the pie, and decorating the tree, all on Saturday before 1 pm. Is it any wonder I didn’t sleep well on Friday night? I think I was too tired to sleep.

By Saturday I was beginning to think that perhaps Thanksgiving was an unhealthy expat obsession of mine and that perhaps I needed to let it go. But in the end, everything came out right and the dinner had other good fruits (so to speak) as well. But I did not take photos. After everyone left at around 6:00 pm, I lay down on the sofa for a little catnap before doing dishes and…woke again at 1:00 am.

A few take-aways from last week:

Carrefour LeGru carries Ocean Spray smooth cranberry sauce in their ethnic foods section! If you’ve ever read one of my Thanksgiving posts, you know how fixated I can get on cranberry sauce. But you can’t count on it being there when you need it, so if you’re an expat with a nostalgia for Ocean Spray, buy it when you see it. I bought mine during the summer.

There is no substitute for self-rising cornmeal. I don’t know why that is, but I have decided it’s worth smuggling a bag over every year in someone’s suitcase. There is no Italian substitute. I don’t know what kind of magic pixie dust they put in that stuff, but I’m not questioning it ever again.

I have finally made myself a list of all Thanksgiving dishes, ingredients needed, time required to do each task and on what day it needs to be done, with all measures and temperatures converted to metric, to make the job easier. It has taken five years to figure out Thanksgiving in Italy, but I think I’ve finally got it. The basic problem with Thanksgiving food is that it all has to go in the oven, one item at a time.

It’s much more fun explaining pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and dressing, Abraham Lincoln and the fourth Thursday in November, and why despite the fact that the pilgrims were giving thanks to God, Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, to Italians, than it is explaining the election. Anything is more fun than talking about this election.

And did you know that despite the fact that Italians don’t know when Thanksgiving is, they now have Black Friday? Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone charging any stores.

And now, back to the drawing board and my plate of Thanksgiving leftovers! It’s Advent!

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The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

The feast of St. Francis is almost over here in Italy, but here are three reasons to post about it anyway: In the first place, I attend a Franciscan church and I have a soft spot for the friars’ gentle ways and their love for the poor. In the second place, St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy (and animals). And in the third place, I recently found this lovely post card painted by Pauline Baynes, who is probably best known as the original illustrator of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. As you can see, the post card emphasizes St. Francis’s relationship with animals and also that he was the first to popularize nativity scenes. He was a man who sought to imitate Christ in all he did.

And…it’s also my sister’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Leah!

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St. Francis, by Pauline Baynes