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The traveler: An expected journey This time it's the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden & Norway before England again for several weeks and on to Croatia.

Last Stop in Italy

ITALY | Tuesday, 16 February 2016 | Views [299]

So long ago, back in early October my time in Continental Europe was coming to an end. From Tuscany I’d started to make my way north again, back towards the Alps and the day my plane departed for London. Yet there were still a few days remaining. On my last night in Venice I arranged to see my Italian friend once more, and explore the area of Italy where he lived. So for two days I had an insight into Italian college life.

Only my friend and his roommate shared the apartment in the town of Udine, but there were friends constantly dropping by so it rarely felt like just 2 people lived there. Everyone spoke some level of English, but of course I also sat back and listened to numerous conversations I had no idea what they were about. At some point someone usually broke off and summarized it for me in English. The first evening the discussion was about the merits of being vegetarian based on the documentary the roommate and his girlfriend had just watched. My friend said they wouldn’t be doing such a good job of arguing their point if they had to do it in English.

Most of his friends seemed to either be studying languages and philosophy, or tourism like him. They all seemed to have a great interest in history as well. What a surprise to find in a group of college students! This collection of interests was a great combination for me because over the course of my stay they took me to see some wonderful historical places in the northeastern part of Italy.

In the mornings my friend had a class for a couple hours, which gave me the great luxury of planning my next several days and trying to book rooms at a reasonable hour of the day. When he came back from class we and a friend or two went off for the afternoon.

The first day we headed north to the base of the Alps. Though I know I don’t remember everything they told me about the history of the area, and Italy in general, the one main piece I do is about the many times the area has shifted hands. Humans have always been limited by nature, and the Alps are no exception. Rather than hike over any part of the Alps conquerors and armies through the ages have found the easiest passing points and one happens to be not far from Udine. In recent history the area has shifted many times between Italy and Austria. Even during the First World War Italy was forcing the Austrian army out of the area.

Here at the foot of the Alps lies the beautiful little town of Venzone. In the mid 1970s hundreds of detailed photos were taken of the town in order to document it for certification as a World Heritage Site (I believe). Just months later there was a massive earthquake and aftershock weeks latter. It left the town almost completely leveled. Over the next 10 years every stone of the Cathedral was laid out and marked as to which stonemason originally crafted it, and which stones it once rested against. Then using the techniques of the olden days the Cathedral was entirely rebuilt, with references to all of the photographs, so that every single stone is exactly where it once was. This same method was also applied to certain parts of the small town, while others were simply rebuilt, or left. We walked around the quiet town (most of the tourist had left weeks before) and into the Cathedral. If I hadn’t been told the story I would have had no idea that it had ever crumbled.

On the way back we stopped in Gemona, where my friend had worked in the tourist office the previous summer. He of course has taken English, but is debating about taking the easier Spanish, or the harder and more useful German. While we were out he’d point out the several bikers we came across. Apparently the Austrians love biking and frequently make a day of bicycling down to Italy. The boarders really begin to blur in Europe, especially near the imaginary lines we've drawn around countries.

One of the impressive sights in Gemona was the Cathedral. On one side of the door stands a giant figure biblical with a tiny Jesus sitting on his shoulder. In real life he was said to be much taller than the average person. In contrast to the ancient buildings are the bright, new murals around town. Apparently the town decided to choose artists every year to decorate some of the walls to prevent people from covering them with graffiti.

After piazza for lunch my friend dashed off for his afternoon class while his friend gave me a tour of the older part of the city of Udine, and filled me in a bit more on the history. Venice had left a sure mark on the city from its several hundred-year rule of the area. The central piazza unmistakingly resembles one side of the San Marco Piazza in Venice. Like all Italian cities there's more than one church. There are at least 4 different names for places of worship, usually according to size. A plain old "church" is the smallest, then are also basilicas, duomos, and cathedrals. Either a basilica, or duomo is the largest church in the city, but I can't recall what the other one means. Then there is the cathedral, which are where the bishop resides. It was in what I think was just a plain old "church" that the friend pointed out something very interesting to me. In a stone carving beneath an alter all worldly things were represented as impermanent, such as wealth and the human body. However what was incredibly unique is that the artist had also added the symbols of the church, which is supposed to be timeless. He didn't skimp on the number of symbols either. I just wonder how it ended up being let into the church.

On day two we went with two different friends in the other direction towards the ocean. We passed through the city of Palmanova whose defensive walls were built in the shape of a star, and on to Aquileia. It is in this very small city that there stands another remarkable church. Apparently it was the second one built after the first Christian church in Rome. Of course it has been rebuilt at least once since it's first construction over 1500 years ago. The rebuilders however simply laid another layer of floor (about 2 feet thick) over the original one. At some point in the recent past this floor was rediscovered beneath the other layers. Today a plexiglass walkway over the floor allows you to admire the original mosaic without damaging it. Thanks to it's many centuries of protection the mosaic is in remarkable condition though with very perceptible waves from the shifting ground. This goes well with the subject matter however, which is largely devoted to sea life of all sorts. These old mosaics of squids and fishermen were quite unique from all other church floors I'd seen. It truly came from a different time.

After our visit to the church of Aquileia we drove a short distance to Grado, right on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Most of the tourists seemed to be gone, but it was evident from the vast number of restaurants that it must be bustling in the summer. Finally a restaurant was selected for lunch, which I played no part in, as I was at a loss as to what they were looking for. To my great joy though I was able to read the menu for myself as it included English! As we sat there I was informed that the three of them had decided to skip their afternoon class. Though I insisted they not skip it on my behalf they said they'd decided to make the most of the day since it was the roommate's birthday, and no one felt like rushing back. He claimed that it was the first time he'd actually had a special birthday meal. I guess there's simply not much to improve upon as far as Italian food goes! After eating we made our way to the empty beach where we browsed through the many small shells. Earlier my friend had explained that the name of one type of shellfish that's popular to eat is also a term they use for girls, rather like the English word "chicks". However I am either inadequately informed on the names of shellfish, or there is no translation to English.

That evening there was a party planned to celebrate the roommate's birthday and also that of his friend who's birthday was the next day. With a little reservation I agreed to go along with them. More friends joined us, including two girls, and we set out for the central piazza. As it turned out the next several hours were simply spent socializing on the steeps of the Venetian style piazza with plastic cups of wine.

Earlier in the day I'd been told about a few of the other friends who'd be joining us at the party. Unlike the rest of them these young men had gone to a classical high school. This is rather the difference between Harvard and a state college, though at the high school level. Sure enough they arrived with beards, hats, and semi formal jackets. My friend had told me they would also be eager to demonstrate their proficiency in English. Without a doubt their English was on a different level than everyone else I'd spoken with, and almost flawless. So I spent probably at least an hour in a conversation about classical literature and culture compared to other European cultures of which I was not terribly interested. I am more of the opinion that people are who they make themselves, not defined by their lineage. Finally at about 2:30 in the morning things wrapped up, and with all of the recycling and trash collected we headed back.

On the way one of the girls, who'd been too shy to try speaking to me in English warmed up. In fact she spoke very well. She told me how many young people had no interest in anything. She was exasperated with their complete lack of enthusiasm for life. It was an unexpected pleasure to have a conversation with her.

Over past couple days I'd also been hearing about how students, who wished to continue researching and other academic work after graduating college left Italy because they can find a much better job in another country. It's sad to hear about the promising new generation leaving their country for a future somewhere else. All of the students I met seemed to either have a goal of teaching, or of working in the tourism industry. There really didn't seem like many other options.

My Italian friend had been a great tour guide, and I a reminder for what he really wanted to do. The next day after a small coffee we all parted at the train station: the roommate for a month in Ireland, I to wait for my train, and my friend to catch up on some sleep before classes.

As I waited in a little garden nearby writing postcards I had my last conversation in Italy, not with an Italian, but a man from Pakistan. He was leaving soon for Scotland where he'd finally obtained a visa. He'd spent years traveling through Europe looking for somewhere safe he and his family could live while trying not to be booted back home. His youngest child is now six years old, but he hasn't seem him for at least several years. In the meantime his oldest daughter was married and will not join her family when they move Scotland. His story was not the last reminder of the massive immigration to Europe I'd have before returning home.


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