Monday, March 31, 2008


We are back from a whirlwind trip to parts south, following immediately on the heels of Culture Week here in Rome.

Culture Week is a week-long celebration of Italian culture that happens every year. All week long, museums and other cultural places and events are free, and special exhibits, tours and shows are put on. We did our best to take advantage of the free-ness and the extra opportunities, despite the fact that there is NO PUBLICITY about this. We were able to find exactly one brochure online (a pdf of the only brochure I ever saw in person) that listed events, and there was not a single sign anywhere in this city. I guess they don't want people going too crazy for the free-ness of it all, and they certainly don't want the tourists hearing about it.

Well, here's a quick rundown of the things some or all of us did (for free!) to celebrate Culture Week:

* an excellent English language tour of the Capitoline Museums of antiquities (where we saw, among other things, the original Etruscan she-wolf statue that has become the symbol of the city of Rome -- after little baby Romulus and Remus were added thousands of years later);

*an excellent Italian language tour, by the exact same guide and in a cold rainy wind, of 5 or 6 of the aqueducts just outside town;

*a visit to the Museum of Rome in Trastevere, which had lots of interesting photos of Trastevere (our neighborhood) over the last century and a terrific collection of really fabulous watercolors of Rome at the turn of the 20th century by a man named Ettore Roesler Franz;

*a guided tour of the "secret" gardens at the Borghese Gallery (given in Italian by a woman named Beth from Ohio);

*a visit to the optical illusion collonade created by the architect Borromini (it's actually 12 meters long but looks very convincingly 35 meters -- very cool);

*a visit to the Balbi Crypt, which shows the development of a Rome neighborhood from ancient to modern times;

*a visit to Castel Sant'Angelo, the pope's personal castle, after a climb with our Baltimore friends Ben and Harry Chello and Laurie Feinberg to the top of the dome of St. Peter's (which didn't count for culture week because it wasn't free, but was still way cool on a crystal clear day);

* a nighttime visit to the Capitoline Museum to sketch; and

* a (very late!) nighttime visit to the Ara Pacis, Emperor Augustus' Altar of Peace.

This was all in only 4 days, because we then left with the students for a trip to Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento, where we got into other things for free with the whole group. I'll let somebody else tell you about that great trip.

So, just thought you'd like to know that despite the disastrous fall of the dollar, we're getting our money's worth here -- or at least we did last week! Now I need to go to bed to recover.

-- Maureen

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Aqueducts

Did you know that...

  • The first aqueduct was built in 312 B.C.

  • Every kilometer that an aqueduct went forward, it went down only one meter.

  • Once the arcade was built, when the top part of the aqueduct wore out, they would build a new one on top.

  • People that lived along an aqueduct but got none of the water would steal the water from the aqueducts.

  • If there was too much water in an aqueduct they would open something a bit like a pressure valve.

  • Most of an aqueduct was under ground.

  • To cross a valley, the Romans would let the water run down the mountain side, go into an above ground aqueduct then use momentum to go into the pipe on the other side of the valley.

  • All the technology was lost in the middle ages, so they built a pit in the ground.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Bit Of Work

This is a report I, I repeat, I did on Marco Polo, I repeat, Marco Polo, a major Italian trader.

The Adventures of Marco Polo

“Marco!” shouts one child. “Polo!” shout the rest. Is this what we have Marco Polo to thank for? The flat answer is no. Marco Polo was an explorer who went from Venice overland to China and surrounding areas including Mongolia.

Marco Polo was born in 1254 and died in 1324, both in Venice. In Marco Polo’s time the Mongols were very powerful, so Marco Polo’s father and uncle went to trade with Kublai Kahn, the Mongols’ ruler. The Kahn grew so fond of the Polo brothers that as they were leaving, he made them promise to return with a letter from the pope and 100 experts on Christianity. (The Kahn was interested in Christianity though he wasn’t Christian.)

At the age of seventeen Marco Polo set out with his father uncle and two friars, to trade again with and return to Kublai Kahn. Part way through the journey the frightened friars ran away. Marco Polo stayed in the Kahn’s court seventeen years. At the age of 34 he had spent half his life in the Kahn’s court. He served as the Mongolian ambassador. The Kahn grew sick and Polo knew that if the Kahn died he would be in danger, so he convinced the Kahn to let him visit his family and to escort a new princess to Persia. Then they got the news that the Kahn had died so they went to Venice permanently.

When Marco Polo returned to Venice, he got caught up in a war against Genoa. He was captured and in prison he told his prison mate, Rustichello, a writer, about his tales. Rustichello and he wrote a book.

Most of the information about Marco Polo came from the book he wrote. There have been proven to be many false things in the book, like a unicorn with huge spikes on its tongue. Some doubt he even went to China. However, most information from the journal is true.
Is Marco Polo still irrelevant-seeming? Well, if Marco Polo hadn’t made his trip to Mongolia, then explorers and traders wouldn’t have gone to Asia nearly as much. Christopher Columbus wouldn’t have tried to sail around the world to India and would have never discovered the Americas. So what about now?


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Vigil at the Vatican

Last night we went to the Easter Vigil at St. Peter's, which is a good thing since this morning it is raining buckets, along with thunder and lightning. I feel for the crowds gathered outside in St. Peter's Square for Easter Sunday Mass right now.

We arrived at the Vatican around 7:00 and took our place in a long line.
We got inside around 8:30 (the door opened around 7:30).
We were seated behind the High Altar, so our view was less than ideal. But we were quite close and could see the Pope (from behind) very well during the liturgy of the Eucharist.

For you Church-geeks out there, here are a few things that struck me:
  • Our candles were not actually lighted from the new fire, but by the butane lighters of the ushers. The kids -- and Maureen and I -- thought this was extremely cheesey. I would think that with a little planning they could have figured out a way to spread the fire even in a place as big as St. Peter's.
  • When the lights came up after the third "Lumen Christi," we had just gotten our candles lighted. Suddenly it was like we're under interrogation (the lights in St. Peter's are really bright).
  • The Deacon did a great job chanting the Exultet (not so great on the Gospel -- too sloooooow), and, since it was in Latin, we got the mention of the bees that are (inexplicably) omitted in the English translation:
    Therefore on this sacred night, receive, O holy Father, the evening sacrifice, which thy holy Church by the hands of her ministers presents to thee in the solemn offering of this wax candle made out of the labor of bees. And now we know the excellence of this pillar, which the bright fire lights for the honor of God. Which fire, though now divided, suffers no loss from the communication of its light. Because it is fed by the melted wax, which the mother bee wrought for the substance of this precious lamp.
  • There were six readings (four OT, the Epistle and the Gospel), each in a different language: German, Spanish, English, French, Italian and Latin . Three of the six readers were women, which for some reason was very striking to me -- hearing women's voices amidst all that testosterone.
  • The music was OKish -- a premium seemed to be put on congregational participation, so most of it was quite simple. I noticed that congregational participation seemed to decrease once the (very loud -- at least where we were) organ kicked in at the Gloria.
  • The most excruciating moment was during the lighting of the altar candles at the Gloria: it took forever -- the poor guy was still trying to light them well into the Epistle -- and we were on the edge of our seats wondering if he would get them all lit. I felt like applauding when he got the last one done.
  • Since my Italian is pretty minimal, so I only caught parts of the homily, but I've since read a translation and it was impressive.
  • Unfortunately, we couldn't see the baptisms, which are always my favorite part of the Vigil, but we did catch a glimpse of the neophytes was they brought the gifts of bread and wine to the altar. Apparently one of them is a prominent (non-practicing) Muslim in Rome, but nothing was made of this during the liturgy itself, which is a good thing. No reason to indulge in triumphalism (as opposed to celebrating the triumph of Christ over death).
  • They didn't sprinkle us with the baptismal water, which was disappointing. As with the fire, I would think there would be a way to work this out even in a place as large as St. Peter's.
  • As a deacon, I was interested to see a couple of special diaconal lines in the liturgy. Just before the Pope intoned (in a quavery but somehow moving voice) the Easter before the Gospel, the Deacon chanted (in Latin): "Most blessed Father, I announce to you a great joy, which is "Alleluia." And at the sign of peace he said, "In the Spirit of Christ, who is risen from the dead, offer each other the sign of peace." I don't know if these are peculiarly Papal things or are elements of the 2002 Missal that will appear with the new English translation, but I like them (I'm always for enhancing the Deacon's lines).
  • Communion, as always seems to be the case at Papal Masses, seemed a pretty rushed affair, with a disorganized scrum of people surging forward to the army of priests who are distributing communion. Ah well, it's still Christ's body and blood.

As we left, we admired St. Peter's Square all decorated for Sunday Mass.

I can only imagine how it looks on this soggy morning.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

Maureen and I brgan our Good Friday by going to Morning Prayer at the church of San Giorgio in Velabro. It was a small crowd of less than 20 and we sang psalms and scripture, included the Lamentations of Jeremiah (a traditional part of Tenebrae). A bit of a capella chanting in a simple early medieval church is a perfect way to set the tone for Good Friday.

Then we decided that we should make the kids suffer a little by dragging them around to churches.

We went to St. John Lateran, which is the only of the four major basilicas that we had not yet visited. The original structure was built by Constantine in the 4th century, but was given a baroque makeover by Borromini in the 17th.
Including a cool-gross statue of St. Bartholomew holding his own skin (he was flayed to death).
It still has its gothic baldichino over the high altar,
and a 13th century apse mosaic.
It (and not, as most people presume, St. Peter's) is the cathedral for the city of Rome and so contains the Pope's cathedra or throne.

We also looked in the Baptistry, which was also built by Constantine, and was where every Roman was baptized during the 4th century:

The baptistry has some great mosaics:
Then we went to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which was build on the site of a palace belonging to Constantine's mother, Helena, and which contains several relics associated with the Passion, including the plaque hung above Jesus' head by Pilate, as well as several pieces of the cross that Helena brought back with her from Jesrusalem. It's often hard to know what to make of such claims, but the devotion of the people there was certainly real, and who is to say that they are not genuine.

We then went to the little oratory of St. Francis Xavier, where we joined in the Good Friday liturgy. Aside from a slightly flimsy cross for the veneration, it was very nice. While there we ran into Clare Pratt, whom we had known over 20 years ago in Houston. She has been in Rome for the past 15 years working for her order (the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), most recently as Superior General. It's a small, small world. I figure that if I can run into someone in Rome that I knew two decades ago and half a world away, then perhaps relics of the true cross making their way to Rome is not so far-fetched after all.


Thursday, March 20, 2008


We have been celebrating my thirteenth birthday for the past three days, so I will give you a quick description of each day.

We celebrated on the 17th because I wanted to celebrate in Belgium with our friends there and we were leaving that afternoon. We celebrated with chocolate cake (made by my friend Bethany with a little help from me and her sister Lisa) and a couple small gifts (a block of belgian chocolate and a book on drawing flowers with the instructions in Flemish).

There was some controversy over which day my birthday was because I was born at 6:18 p.m. on March 18th in Baltimore, which is 12:18 a.m. on March 19th in Rome. Unable to choose, we decided to celebrate on both days. On the 18th, we went out to lunch at a delicious restaurant nearby. Later that day, my mom made panekoeken (which are like Belgian crepes filled with sugar) as best she could without a recipe.

The final day of celebration, the 19th, was an ordinary day until dinnertime. For dinner we had pasta preceded by typical Roman fried zucchini flowers. They are fairly simple, but still quite a production to make. Here is how:

(1) Mix bread crumbs with one egg (the mixture is supposed to be crumbl rather than eggy, so you don't need much egg) and some salt and pepper.

(2) Gently fill the flowers with the bread crumb mixture and set them aside.

(3) Heat a lot of oil in a pan, but don't let it get so hot that it smokes.

(4) Fill a shallow bowl with flour and another one with a couple of well beaten eggs.

(5) Roll each flower first in the flour, then in the egg, making sure all of the outside of the flower is covered in both flour and egg.

(6) Put the flowers in the pan of oil and let them fry until they are lightly browned.

They have to be served fresh, so put them on a plate with several layers of paper towel and cover them until you are ready to eat them.

We finished the evening by staying up til midnight to watch The Matrix (which Denis and I had never seen before). Overall, my three birthdays were highly satisfactory.

Are You the Bwaaaaain Specialist?

The Original:

Thomas as Mr. Gumby:

And Maureen ponders her son's future.

-- Fritz

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We're back and Sophie's 13!

Faithful readers, we apologize for our long absence. We spent last week visiting friends and old familiar places in Leuven, Belgium.

It is always bittersweet for us to be in Leuven, because we love the place and the people so much, and for a while it was home for us. Denis, who was delighted with how much he remembered -- both of places and of his Dutch -- was having a hard time sorting out these happy/sad/wistful emotions one night, so we had a great conversation about the meaning of the word nostalgic.
We had a warm and wonderful welcome from old friends like the Servaas-Miller family, Christel Snels and her family, and our dear friend Rada Arsanukaeva and her family, as well as others who patiently allowed us to practice both our English and our Dutch with them as we caught up with each other. One highlight was an invitation to dinner from Molly and John Berger, the current residents of our old home at Begijnhof 19. We had a great time, though the children complained that the house had gotten smaller than it used to be.
We had one day of sightseeing. Fritz, Denis, Sophie, Nathan and Bethany Miller and I went to Gent and visited the Gravensteen castle, a crusader-style castle that has been wonderfully restored and sparks many fantasies. It even got Sophie to pick out the weapons she would take with her on her quest. She looks all pacifist and all, but keep you might want to keep your eye on her and see if you can see where she's hidden her dagger. Nathan and Denis, of course, conquered the castle while we were there, so we knew we were in good hands.

The other thing we did in Gent (besides eating some good Flemish frietjes and mayonnaise)
was to spend a lovely time visiting the van Eyck masterpiece The Mystic Adoration of the Lamb altarpiece. It is truly one of the masterworks of the Flemish "Primitive" painters of the 15th century (from whom the Italians learned the technique of oil painting), and it is beyond my linguistic powers to describe. All I can say is, if you're ever in the neighborhood, definitely make the effort to see it. This portrayal of the heavenly garden has many amazing details, but our friend Bethany was most struck by how much the heavenly city in the background looks like Flanders. Go figger. Here are the children climbing into the laps of the van Eyck brothers outside the cathedral.

We began celebrating Sophie's 13th birthday on the 17th of March so that we could do it with the Servaas-Miller family before we left Belgium, and we continued upon our return to Rome, where we had a great lunch at a local trattoria yesterday (the 18th). There is some confusion about which day actually counts as Sophie's birthday here, because she was born at 6:18 pm on March 18th in Baltimore, but with the time difference, that would be 12:18 am on March 19th here. Then Fritz starts to throw in daylight savings time, and things get really confused. Our solution is to keep celebrating, and we will have a special dinner of fresh pasta and fried zucchini flowers tonight just to make sure we cover our bases.

We hope that you are all well and wish you a wonderful Holy Week. I'm sure we'll let you know about ours here in the Eternal City....