Saturday, July 16, 2011

Italy - Where I spent 6 weeks this year

Jocelyn and I arrived in Milan, Italy in the middle of March and were surprised at the warm sunny weather that characterized most of our first two weeks. Perhaps what surprised me even more were the many cherry blossoms in the area in which we lived. In Taiwan, we had only occasionally seen them on mountains several thousand feet above sea level.
Although we were staying on the outskirts of Milan, the business capital of Italy, I did not really venture into the city much at first, and so my experiences at that point were confined to what I saw in the predominantly residential area where we stayed.
With Jocelyn busy with the course that she and five other students were taking, I needed to decide how I would make the best use of the six weeks I had there, given that my work would keep me busy much of the time. When I travel to places I am particularly interested to learn the local language and if possible interact with local people. However, I realized meeting people would not be that easy, especially since I was in a big city and was really unable to take part in the kinds of social activities that might help me meet people. If only I had had a good road bike!
I did have the use of a bicycle, even though it was very old and way too small for me. It had 20-inch wheels and the seat only went up do much, so that I had to ride very carefully so as not to seriously damage my knee tendons. However, the bike did prove very useful, and I could reach the area around the Basilica of San Lorenzo (above) in just about 20 minutes from our accommodation.
Milan Cathedral was huge and I was lucky to be able to at least get a picture of it on a sunny day using a wide-angle lens. However, it was always a magnet for tourists, which meant that one soon got tired of being in that area.
Not far from there, I found the church of San Steffan Maggiore, for which the foundation was laid around the 5th century A.D. From the outside it did not look particularly special, but the inside was amazing. I was also able to find some peace and quiet here, to read and to reflect a little. This is perhaps where I began to realize why I had come to Italy.
This was the inside of a smaller church with more of an emphasis on Mary.
After being in Italy and with Easter soon approaching, I summoned up the courage to attend mass at the church of San Barnabas in Gratasoglio, very close to where we were staying. I was not sure what to expect, since I had not been to a Catholic church since my childhood. At least it was a great way of hearing Italian being read and spoken. The service the evening before Easter Sunday was also particularly good - much work went into planning the mass and it appeared very well orchestrated, with the involvement of many "lay" people.
Perhaps the church I liked most was one with a very long and rich history and a huge building, San Eustorgio. In spite of the very well planned services (the Good Friday service was particularly memorable), the excellent quality of the singing, and so on, there were not that many people (perhaps just a few hundred) in attendance at the Sunday services. I somehow got the impression that most people in Milan did not care to go to church, even though there were so many historical churches there.
I did even get to talk to one of the priests there. He did not mind my attending the services, even though I told him that I stopped attending the Catholic church when I was 17. I was later to learn that the senior pastor (now well into his 70s and who blessed me at the end of one of the services) had helped establish churches all over Italy and in spite of the robes and the relics within the church was a very fervent Christian and church leader. The ambulances in the picture where there because some of the ambulance personnel were participating in one of the services. It was good to see their commitment and enthusiasm.
Milan also has many other buildings of historical interest, in fact so many that it is very difficult to visit them all, and I could more or less write a book on the few that I did get to see.
Well, I did manage to see a few other places besides Milan, although the farthest that I went was to Venice. This is a great destination. It is packed with tourists, but it has that "olde worlde" feel and there are many alleys one can walk down without feeling one is in a tourist destination. And, no cars, too.
San Marco in Venice - It is huge.
A restaurant by a canal in Venice. No, unfortunately Jocelyn and I did not get to eat there. Generally we were on a limited budget while in Italy, and most of our money went on paying the rent. However, the views were priceless, and were almost costless (the train tickets we bought being relatively cheap).
This was a quiet part of Venice overlooking the ocean where I ate the lunch I had brought with me.
Inside a church (Santa Maria di Nazareth) close to the train station in Venice.
During my last two weeks in Italy, I got to visit a few other cities, including Genova (Genoa) in Liguria. I found this a nice city with much of historical interest, and also some astounding churches, including the one above, with its beautiful ceilings (see below).
I feel that Genova would have been a nicer place in which to live than Milan. It is by the sea, is made famous by Christopher Columbus, and is easy to walk around in a day.
A park in Genova.
Inside one of the many churches in Genova. This one benefited from the help of famous European painters in centuries past.
Standing by the Ligurian Sea in the Port of Genoa.
I also went to Torino (Turin) where I visited the royal palace.
This particular church in Torino was devoted to St. John the Baptist.
The Basilica di Superga outside Torino. This is several miles outside the city and at elevation. There is a train service. However, I chose to walk back from the Basilica to the town and it took a good two hours.
A view along the river in Verona, Italy. Jocelyn and I visited this city which is perhaps most famous for the balcony which Romeo was able to climb up to to meet Juliet and which inspired Shakespeare.
The famous churches in Verona all required admission fees, whereas most in the other places I visited were free. This one, Santa Anastasia, had a particularly beautiful ceiling.
Part of the Roman wall in Verona.
Jocelyn and I standing in front of the open door to the balcony made famous by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

In my short stay in Italy, I feel I hardly got to know any local people, but I did make quite a lot of progress with the language, by first of all trying to read bits of newspapers, then attending mass in Italian on several occasions, and reading much of the mass-related material. While I was able to visit several of the major cities in Northern Italy, I feel that the greatest thing I learned during this trip was the relevance that being raised a Catholic had to me as a child, and also now later in life as I reviewed my spiritual pilgrimage over the years. Hopefully, Jocelyn and I will get to go to Italy again and then I can continue to understand more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Last Year: Part One - Sweden

It seems very hard to start writing a blog again after leaving it for so long. Well, my last post was about a failed attempt at a marathon early last year. This left me wondering what on earth there was for me to write about. While I continued to swim on and off for a few months after that fateful run, I was not particularly focused on sports at all. Thoughts of a possible trip to Hawaii where I could have got back into training again had to be pushed back as plans did not work out quite as expected.
So, what is there to write about over the last year or so? The first major event was a trip to Sweden, for about 11 weeks - not exactly a flying visit.
My wife and I stayed in a small campus community of about 100 people in an area that was mostly farmland. Fortunately, there was good Internet access, so I could keep in touch with the world outside.

I arrived by plane in Göteborg, Sweden in mid-September after a week visiting family in England. After a train ride and a short drive by car, I found that I would be living in a fairly remote farming area for most of my time there. My wife was taking a 3-month course as part of her degree program, and I would be getting on as best as I could with my own work, as well as taking the opportunity to learn as much as I could about Sweden and hopefully attempt to learn some of the language.
Picturesque views like this meant that in the afternoons on sunny days I could sit and overlook the sea while getting on with some of my work, based on the idea of doing work but enjoying nature at the same time.

Having done quite a lot of swimming earlier in the year, I thought there may be opportunities to swim here, since I knew that the sea was only walking distance from where we were staying. However, while I did dive in once (very briefly), I realized that it may be better to wait until I returned to Taiwan before taking up swimming again.

Apart from the water being a lot colder than what I was normally used to, the one thing that stopped me from at least one longish swim was the many jellyfish that happened to frequent the waters at this time of the year.

A Lutheran retreat center about an hour's drive away. These were quite idyllic surroundings and I would have liked to have been able to just stay here.

While living on what had once been a private Christian school, at times it felt like being a little cut off from day-to-day Swedish society. This was because there were many different nationalities represented on the campus, meaning that English was the main means of communication. Certainly not very good if one hopes to learn the local language. So, to try to speed things up a bit, I ended up picking up Swedish here and there through the Internet, especially through listening to music and comparing what I heard with the lyrics of the songs which I could usually find somewhere.

When someone had said there was a lake within walking distance of the retreat center, I had thought that it might be the size of a small swimming pool which might provide the opportunity to swim. This lake (Kornsjön) was so huge and isolated that a swim was out of the question.

While living at the campus, in order to relax a little and get away from my desk, I would go for walks among the nearby farms - usually after lunch, as it got dark fairly early.

Because my wife and her classmates needed to visit the library at the University of Gothenberg, I had a chance to go there, too. We also went to the Economics library in another part of the city. I found that interesting, although I am glad that I hardly ever go to libraries now, preferring to find whatever I need on my computer.

The city of Göteborg has many nice buildings, many of historic significance.

Later in our trip, we got to visit the Laxå commun. I cannot remember if this church (Tiveds Kyrka) was actually in that commun, but it was in a very nice part of the countryside half way between Göteborg and Stockholm.

One of the local farmers started grazing his horses (North Swedish horses) in the field in Restenäs right next to where we were staying.

A trip to Sweden wouldn't be complete without a visit to Stockholm, in my opinion one of the nicest looking cities I have been to. We stayed in the Old Town (Gamla Stan). Here we are looking out of the old town.

Jocelyn and I in Stockholm. I was quite pleased with the hoodsweat I had found in the "boutique" (the free second-hand store) on our campus. Certainly one of my Swedish friends like it. The Swedes are very patriotic, at least a lot more than the British.

There were many nice souvenirs on sale in Stockholm. I have a few souvenirs that I brought back. However, it is not the items that are important, but rather the memories that you bring back.

Occasionally we would see a nice sunset. However, towards the end of our stay (early December) one had to hurry after lunch to get there in time.

The horses were obviously used to the cold winters. On the day this photo was taken the temperature was between -5C and -10C. Just taking my gloves off to take a picture was quite a challenge for me.

I still miss the horses, particularly this one, which always came up to me when I waded through the snow to visit them.

Each time I passed this cottage (stuga) next to our campus (which appeared to be "empty"), I wondered about one day living in one of these.

In England, the airport would have been closed. In Sweden, this was just a normal day. After dousing the plane with warm water and making sure the snow was swept off the runway, the airport authorities allowed us to take off without incident and we were soon back in England where it fortunately was not snowing.

So, what did I learn from my trip? I kind of had a lot of mixed feelings about my trip. On the one hand, it was great going to a country to which I had never been and finding the local people that I did manage to meet to be quite friendly, although not very easy to get to know. I am not a very touristy type of person, and I am not really interested in just seeing the sights and enjoying the comforts of hotels or having everyone talk to me in English just because I am British.
When being part of an international community, as we were, relationships with other people can tend to be quite shallow since everyone tends to be busy with their work or studies and after a few months most people are going to move on. That is why I particularly enjoyed being with local people who just live their normal lives year in year out in the location, usually working at the same job and living in the same house. While these kinds of contacts were few and far between, I did at least have a few good conversations (in English of course), which proved that despite the differences in nationality and background, there was still a lot we had in common. It was nice to hear people we visited talk about their taking the train each day to Örebro each day to go to work, or to hear how one man almost my age coped with the harsh winters and how they affected his livelihood. The Swedes on our campus were mostly in their early 20s and so it was like my wife and I were talking to people of our children's generation. However, that was also a lot of fun. In fact we have been so used to that over the years that we don't realize how old we are getting.
I wish in a way that I had spent some time learning the language before going to Sweden, but that is a lot easier said than done. The pronunciation of Swedish is quite different from what I would expect. Therefore, I feel I learned to recognize the sounds a lot more easily by actually being there and listening not just to the occasional Swedish spoken around me but also to music to compensate for the lack of interaction with local people. I will always be better prepared next time. I hope to go again. I went to Oslo (for one night) since my wife needed to meet her classmates there for one week as part of her course, but unfortunately my Norwegian friend was not there at the time. It is so much easier if you know someone there with the time to show you around and introduce you to people. On this trip I wasn't attending a school or doing a specific job for people so that in some ways restricted me, but on the other hand it gave me a few more opportunities, too.