One of the things I miss about Europe is the small shops, the fruterias and the bakeries. The photo above is a fruteria somewhere in Italy, but when I lived in Spain, I would often step inside one to buy a couple of nectarines to eat as a snack while I walked around the city.  Going to the fruteria inserts you firmly into the community, disallowing you from taking refuge in the anonymity of the supermarket chains. The owners or shopkeepers are less likely to speak English, which forces you to practice your language skills. There aren’t any automated check-out lanes, and so you must interact with others in the store. Not only that, but the fruit and veg seem more colourful and fresh when bought from one of these shops than from one of the larger, chain supermarkets.

And the bakeries! How I miss popping into one to buy a baguette to eat with cheese and fruit for lunch, or soft wheaten roll to eat with my soup, or the miniature chocolate croissants to treat myself after work. You can be guaranteed that the bread and pastries are baked fresh, from scratch. You needn’t worry about what preservatives or other strange chemicals you might be putting in your body than you would if you got pre-made pastries at the supermarket.

The U.S. might have more amenities and convenience with its 24-hr supermarkets, with large selections and variety of prices, but I prefer the microcosm, the local community, that the European fruterias and bakeries offer. These small shops grant access to a community that values not convenience, but good food, good people, and a good life.

Photo: A fruteria in Italy.

shrouded in rain

Rain over Rome 2008

We were deep in the labyrinth of the Vatican museums when we heard the rumbling thunder. Even from inside we could hear the torrents of rain battering the roofs, the windows. Felicity and I made our way through the museums until we found a window. Outside, the entire city of Rome was shrouded in rain. We saw the lightning flash in the sky, felt the thunder in the glass of the window, saw how the rain lashed at the buildings and streets, scouring them clean. The storm was sudden, unexpected. It had finished by the time we stepped back outdoors.

Photo: Rain over Rome, Italy.

memories of Florence


Touring Western Europe in three weeks taught me how to travel. When Sarah and I planned our trip, neither of us had been on the Continent before. Operating under the premise that neither of us would be returning to Europe any time soon (little did we know…), we chose our destinations based on the museums and sites that we had learned about in our Western Civ and Fine Arts classes at university.

It was a whirlwind tour, and there are some places that I don’t remember much of–except for the museums. Florence is one of those places. Our purpose was to see Michelangelo’s David and Il Duomo di Firenze, both of which we saw and marvelled at the privilege of seeing them in person rather than in photographs in textbooks. I also remember the hostel we stayed in, a repurposed villa outside of the city, along with two German women, a mother and daughter duo the same age as my mother and grandmother at the time, who were backpacking across Italy; and the group of French schoolchildren that followed us from Venice to Florence to Rome, with their tell-tale orange scarves and penchant for pulling the fire alarm.

I don’t pack as much into my trips when I travel now. One of the things I have learned is how to take pleasure in simply being somewhere. As much as I enjoy visiting museums, I don’t want to spend so much of my time indoors that I don’t remember the actual place I was visiting. Though, it might be that because I have already seen the main touristy sites that I feel I can more deliberately experience the place as itself, rather than keeping to some list of best sites to see.

Even so, the next time I go to Florence, if I am so fortunate as to visit it again, I would very much like to take packed lunch down to those benches by the river, and sit and chat with my companions within view of the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

Photo: The Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence, Italy.

on academic distance


I was discussing with my students the topics they have chosen for their “Explaining a Concept” essays during their House Tutorials yesterday. One of my students chose “religion” as her concept. I’m fine with that, as long as she does her research properly and I know that I will workshop how to research in class tomorrow. It’s also a chance for me to teach a different concept: academic distance. And it didn’t take long for me to demonstrate just that. As part of the group discussion for how she could focus her paper topic, another student said, “You could say how religions change. Like how there were Catholics and then the Christians came–”

“Catholics are Christians,” I said automatically.

“But Catholics pray to angels and believe in the Virgin Mary and Christians don’t,” said another student.

“Actually, Catholics don’t pray to angels. Catholics are Christians.”

“Are you Catholic?” they asked. To which I replied, “Now, about your topic, one way you can focus it is by choosing something specific…”

Which means, of course, they think I’m Catholic. Explaining the finer points between Catholicism and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalianism would take too long; also, my denominational preference doesn’t matter. They don’t understand that what I personally believe did not matter in that discussion: factually, Catholics are Christians. Catholics don’t pray to angels. As for saints and the Virgin: veneration is not the same thing as worship. “Praying to” the saints relies on the premise that all Christians, living and dead, are the body of Christ. “Praying to” a saint is, in a sense, equivalent to asking a friend to pray for you. Now, we could talk about the “cult of the saints” during the Patristic and Medieval periods, but that would be different–because it is in a different historical context.

You can be familiar with a subject without being that subject. It is possible to research a topic without being personally invested in that topic. It is possible to research a subject without putting your own beliefs “at risk.” If you are afraid of that happening, then perhaps you need to question the strength of your convictions. Investigating opposing or alternative viewpoints to your own is not a weakness, but a strength. And when you are personally invested in that subject? Challenge yourself. Identify your bias, become aware of it. Then you can set it aside. You can’t completely detach yourself from your bias; it will keep you company, sprawling on your papers, occasionally getting in your way, like a cat would, while you do research on that subject. Maintaining academic distance requires you to be intensely self-aware.

One of the things I try to teach my students is the habit of critical thinking, the practice of questioning everything, to not accept generalizations at face value. Question the source. Who are they? What authority do they have on this subject? Where are they getting their information? Are their sources credible? I can lecture, I can demonstrate, I can give examples–but whether they take any of it in is up to them.

Photo: Chiesa di San Francesco in Lodi, Italy.

st peter’s columns

St Peters Columns 2009

The rains stopped; the cobbles are drying. A November chill lingers in the Mediterranean air, not what you were expecting. Italy brings up images of baking cobblestones and bright sunlight and eating gelato as it drips down the cone into your hands. That is Italy in summer; in autumn, the rains come, you see the ancient city in a different light. You wonder: how old are these stones? If these stones could speak, what would they say? Would they speak of the miner who dug them out of the earth? Of the mason, who shaped them, who put them where the overseer commanded, to create the structure the architect designed? Would they speak of the soldiers’ blood spilled in their shadows, of the children who picked pockets during the Pope’s speeches to the masses? These stones have seen the world, for the world has come and stood at these columns’ feet. A German priest, sick with the hypocrisy of the church. A tourist from America, with a plastic light saber in his backpack. A Japanese tourist, viewing the Basilica through the lens of her camera. A child, falling, crying as every tired child has cried since the beginning of these stones’ memories. The stones see who comes to pray, who comes to see, who comes out of boredom or curiosity or piety. If the stones could speak, what would they say? Would they cry for Abraham and weep? Or would they stand silent as the stones they are?

Photo: St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy.


During choir tour, we had one day off as a free day. Some people went to Lake Como nearby, others stayed in Lodi, and some went to Milan. F. and I went with F.’s dad to Lugano, a town and lake in Italian Switzerland.


It was low key. We went to Lugano, had lunch, found a spot next to the lake, and hung out. We swam a little bit but the water was really cold and got deep very quickly. We read some, and I fell asleep. We didn’t have time to go up one of the mountains in a cable car, but that’s okay. I got what I wanted: to relax.

Delayed trains got us back to Lodi at nearly midnight. We were worried about getting back into the boarding school, as there were only four keys for the twenty of us and neither F. nor I had one. But we needn’t have worried, as there was a group from our choir still having drinks in the piazza.

Since they were going to stay out a bit longer, F. and I went back to where we had heard some dance music. It was an open air club, full of teenagers, with a bar and a DJ — only, no one was dancing! But we didn’t care. Despite being nearly twice the age as most of the other patrons, we chose a corner of the square and danced. Freestyle, discofox, a bit of ceilidhing, and other steps F. taught me. Afterwards, we discovered that the choir had followed us there and were watching us, but it didn’t matter — we enjoyed ourselves, and probably had the most fun out of everyone there!

Choir Tour: Lodi

IMG_8720Renaissance Singers hadn’t gone on tour for years, but we went in 2013 to Lombardia in Italy. We were based in Lodi, staying in a Catholic boarding school, and had concerts in Lodi, Milan, and Crema. During these six days we rehearsed our repertoire, sang in concerts and in Mass, and wandered the streets, eating lots of pizza, drinking Prosecco, and simply enjoying ourselves.

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The school we stayed in had its own church, San Francesco. We held our rehearsals there and one of our concerts. How can I say how beautiful it was? It was just stunning.

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Our rooms were basic, but homely enough. I enjoyed having an en suite bathroom and a balcony. I would sit on the balcony in the mornings, brushing my hair to dry, watching the swallows and listening to the bells. The bells ringing out across the city were one of my favourite things about Lodi. I could never tell the time by them, or what was going on, because there were so many and at odd times. But they were melodic and lovely.

The view from my window.

The view from my window.

Lodi was far enough from Milan to not be touristy at all. That is another thing I appreciated about where we were staying. I was so proud of myself and F. when we were able to buy allergy medicine, paracetamol, and contact solution (preservative free!) by speaking a mix of Spanish, Italian, and English, and when I was able to order a salad with the vegetables I wanted and ‘sine tonno’ — no tuna!

I for one wasn’t expecting to get as much publicity as we have. Not only did we make Italian television, but you can also watch our first concert in full on Youtube. (If you don’t want to watch the video, and miss hearing our lovely voices, you can still see pictures from our first concert here.) Our first concert was at Università Cattolica in Milan – it wasn’t our best, but it’s still pretty good. Our absolute BEST concert was held in San Francesco church in Lodi. It was amazing. I remember cameras recording that one as well, so I hope the video is uploaded soon!

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