History Hugs a Tree

I love it when news articles report instances in which someone had to call in the medievalists. Is it such a stretch to imagine us en masse, swashbuckling our way through the crowds with manuscripts and Latin dictionaries in hand to save the day? Today’s adventure comes courtesy of Paul who sent me a BBC article describing a direct connection between success or failure of Roman society and changes in its climate. [1] You may also recall how intrigued I am by geology and its relationship to art and history. This week, Mount Etna began to grumble and spew fire, a reminder that the survival of anything– art objects to entire civilizations–is in many ways subject to the forces of nature.[2]

The link between climate change and human achievement in Rome has been deciphered using tree rings from wooden artifacts. Traditionally, dendrochronology (using tree rings to date materials) in archaeology is considered precarious because it tells you the date of the wood, not the object.[3] For instance, the rings on the wooden beam of a church tell you when the tree was cut, not when the church was built. Also, the survival of medieval wooden ships, beams, or furniture is rare. However, the good thing about these elusive medieval tree rings is that trees don’t lie. A tree gets a new ring each year, and the width of that ring is determined by many factors such as temperature, precipitation, fire, wind, species, and habitat.[4] Enough samples have been documented that comparing even partial tree ring evidence to archived samples yields reliable results, and it can be used in conjunction with radiocarbon dating.

In the article, scientists from the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape have gathered enough data to deduce that “wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period.”[5] It’s not particularly surprising that people thrive when nature cooperates, but a study like this adds scientific explanation to common sense theory. Medieval history has added weight to the findings of these paleoclimatologists as well.

The juicy part of all this interdisciplinary intermingling is that so much of history is the writer’s own construction. For instance, there are scholars who would argue that Rome’s ‘chaotic’ migration period could just as easily be seen as one of transition and communication. Lawrence Nees, for instance, promotes art in the early medieval west as that of tradition and transformation, dispelling the notion of “Wandering Tribes” and calling the period “a time of ethnogenesis, the cultural creation of new ‘peoples’, not of the migration of stable populations.”[6] Other scholars concur, saying “the [Roman] empire had never isolated itself from the Germanic peoples they called barbarians, recruiting them as soldiers for the Roman army and developing commercial and diplomatic ties with their leaders.”[7] In other words, the migration period was not necessarily one of constant migration of groups of people, but one of people collectively choosing and asserting their identities. When scholars disagree on the facts, it makes aligning historical events with scientific measurements even more complex. Could measuring climate changes via tree rings compel us to reconsider historical theory?

And how is this remotely useful to an art historian? Right now I’m writing about early Christian baptism, a sacrament that was still evolving in the third century. According to scientist Ulf Büntgen, “distinct drying in the third century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire.”[8] It remains to be seen what impact a drought may have had on art depicting a water ritual, but I like that the discovery is sending my art historical research down a scientific path.


[1] Mark Kinver, “Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees,’” BBC News, January 14, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12186245

See also Ulf Büntgen, et al., “2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility,” Science (January 14, 2011), DOI: 10.1126/science.1197175.  Find the abstract online at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2011/01/12/science.1197175.abstract.

[2] For a fantastic photo by Antonio Parrinello (Reuters), see “Etna Aflame,” National Geographic Daily News, January 14, 2011, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/01/pictures/110114-mount-etna-eruption-pictures-italy-volcanoes/.

[3] A description of the pros and cons of using dendrochronology as evidence can be found in Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (c. 680-850): The Sources (Aldershot Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001), 5.

[4] For an extensive but user-friendly website on dendrochronology, see Henri D. Grissino-Meyer’s site, The Ultimate Tree-Ring Web Pages, http://web.utk.edu/~grissino/index.htm.

See also National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, “Dendrochronology,” Archaeology Program,    http://www.cr.nps.gov/archeology/AforI/howfig_abs3.htm.

[6] Lawrence Nees, Early Medieval Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 14.

[7] Melanie Holcomb, “Barbarians and Romans,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/barb/hd_barb.htm (October 2002).

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All’s Fair in Love and Architecture

Not long ago I got a Facebook invitation from a group petitioning to get Hagia Sophia turned back into a Christian Church. My gut reaction: sure, and then should we dig up Raphael and turn the Pantheon back over to the pagans? It irked me on a surprisingly deep level. It was an attempt to wipe away half a century of the structure’s history. The imperialization of history is often one of intolerance.

Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, rebuilt by the emperor Justinian after the riots of 532, is at present a secular museum.[1] The church’s Byzantine glory faded when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II rode his horse into the sanctuary in 1453, claiming his place as the new heir of the Roman Empire. Robert Nelson has traced Hagia Sophia’s modern history, giving the building its due as a cultural icon, beyond any one group that has played into its ongoing rich web of participants.[2] Now nineteenth-century Arabic medallions sit beneath the “floating” dome that allows an ethereal light into the vast space. The Virgin and Child mosaic still gazes over the basilica, unlike other Byzantine mosaics that were plastered over by the Ottomans who shied away from figural imagery. There are three forces vying for cultural claim of the sacred space: Muslims, Christians, and the secular Turkish government.

The groups haven’t always played well with each other. In 2006, Turkish protestors demonstrated against Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.[3] Last September, a group of Greeks caused a stir by insisting on holding a religious service there despite the illegality of such an act.[4] While the notion that civic and secular control of the structure sounds like a cozy compromise to someone who grew up with a firm separation of church and state, critics are quick to point out that state-sponsored secularism can be oppressive in its own way. Others suggest that Christians and Muslims simply share the space.[5] (On one hand, I’ve seen it happen: the Dome of the Rock is claimed by three religions and is still standing, and there’s at least one church/synagogue in Park Slope. But two issues make me cringe a little as well. First is that shared space can also be a precarious topic; the intensity of the debate over the potential Ground Zero Mosque comes to mind. The other is that I’m not Muslim or Orthodox. Would the rest of us have even less of a claim to the grand location, despite inheriting Hagia Sophia as part of our cultural [art historical] inheritance if not our national or religious one?)

This cultural tug of war leaves the building somewhat accessible to the public—for the price of a ticket the museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 am to 4:30 pm. But accessibility does not equal security. UNESCO cites pollution and urbanization as constant threats to Istanbul’s treasures.[6] Fergus Bordewich’s 2008 descriptions of Hagia Sophia’s grime and decay and delayed preservation efforts due to funding made my soul sink a little.[7] I immediately began filling a change jar, saving up for a plane ticket to make my art historical pilgrimage before an earthquake swallows it whole.

What remains unclear is who is ultimately responsible for the preservation of this monument, who owns culture. It is a delicate structure that requires vast amounts of money and specialized labor to maintain, much less restore. Is any government capable of such a task? Will UNESCO prevail? Hagia Sophia’s duality as both secular and sacred space has complicated its process of being properly monumentalized. Although every structure is in some sense, a living organism—the use of it, even now, is part of its history, part of what Nelson calls a “performance” that has been “threatened with reclamation and revival.”[8]

What is fascinating to me as I tiptoe through this complex debate is the tangible presence of a medieval building in today’s society. Do we treat its medieval religions as the same ones that continue today? Byzantine Christianity was quite different from any denomination practiced today, but its traditions live on. Islam has changed since the fifteenth century, but descendants of the Ottoman conquerors feel connected to that past. Government involvement in the structure began with Justinian, so that tradition is a medieval one as well. Hagia Sophia is not merely a medieval object that sits on display, but a still-relevant, beloved entity in the twenty-first century. The issue here is not one of faith or rightful ownership. It is one of survival, of preservation. Ah, yes, the middle ages live on.

 


[1] For tourism information see Sacred Destinations. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia

[2] Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[4] Today’s Zaman. 2010. Liturgy at Hagia Sophia plan stirs tension. September 17. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-221875-liturgy-at-hagia-sophia-plan-stirs-tension.html

[5] Akyol, Mustafa. 2010. Let’s just reopen Hagia Sophia as church/mosque. Hurriyet Daily News. August 27.

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=let8217s-just-reopen-hagia-sophia-as-churchmosque-2010-08-27

[6] UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Historic Areas of Istanbul. World Heritage Convention. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/356

[7] Fergus M. Bordewich, “A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia,” in Smithsonian (Dec. 2008).

“http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Fading-Glory.html

[8] Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 214.

“There Is No Such Thing As an Art History Emergency”

We’ve all heard someone announce, “I need a good lawyer,” or request that “any doctor or medical personnel aboard the plane report to a flight attendant.” How many times have you timidly asked a pharmacist friend for advice about medications or a landscape designer why your roses look wimpy this year? These are useful jobs, practical ones. No one has ever asked, “is there a Byzantinist in the house?”

I’d love to be able to tell you that I chose my career as an art historian because I’m simply called to do it and wouldn’t be happy with anything else. The truth is, it’s not even my first career, and when I decided to go to grad school, there were several fields I considered: architecture, urban planning, history, English, interior design, journalism. Ultimately, I picked this one because I wanted a job in which I had some amount of creative control over my projects, and because I want to be a writer. I also like the fact that travel is necessary. On a more existential note, my friend just quoted on Facebook a colleague who declared,“at my most cynical, I feel that the powers of this world want to see the humanities and social sciences eliminated from education, as it is these disciplines which encourage students to think about their society and culture, as well as those around them. So, perhaps pursuing a PhD in the humanities is now a subversive act, and should be encouraged as such.” Yet, graduate schools are flooded with applications from PhD hopefuls in all of these disciplines. Ha! Take that, cynical universe.

In a less dreary frame of mind, I’d also confess how thrilled I am when a student tells me that she fell in love with the Metropolitan Museum of Art after I required a visit there or how delighted I am when a student takes an interest in his own religion after seeing its artistic origins in the medieval works we discuss in class. My favorite conversation went something along these lines:

Medieval Art History Student on the last day of class: “You know, I liked this class a lot more than I intended to.”

Me: “Er, thanks. Why exactly?”

Student: “Well, I just expected it to be a bunch of Crucifixes but there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Indeed.

On days that are less rainy and gloomy than this one, I’d also tell you that I believe studying art teaches us something about humanity; it is a gauge of a society’s values and a valuable vehicle for discussing religion and politics and human rights and war and the economy and every other issue that plagues and elates us as humans. Do you think the bullies of the world might back down a little if they realized without gay misfits, we wouldn’t have Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Andy Warhol’s excellent quote about everyone having fifteen minutes of fame? Would the Middle East be in better shape politically if the leaders of Allied powers after WWII had had a clearer notion of the cultural differences inherent in the ethnic groups–whose roots extended back to the middle ages–they were haphazardly assigning to geographic regions?

Recently my curator friend organized a show of two artists whose work incorporates palimpsests, layers of visual information that build on each other and develop a rich experience for the viewer. He asked if I would write an essay for the catalog because he knew that as a medievalist, I might have something to share about manuscripts and the way that medieval scribes would often scrape away a text on an expensive piece of parchment in order to record something new on top of it. Is there a medievalist in the house? Oh, yes! And for once, my expertise was not just a way to conjure up the past, but an opportunity to shed light on two contemporary artists whose work is part of a great tradition of palimpsistic, layered creativity, and whose show is (in my own words from the exhibition catalog) “an invitation to both viewer and artist to question and process visual information in all possible ways, to appreciate the inherent cycles of creation, to find new information in the repetition of a familiar object or practice, and to make the creative process a conversation rather than a monologue.” [Please check out their work in Marksmen and the Palimpsests at www.centotto.com and if you’re in the city, stop by the opening this weekend].

So, yeah, I do think understanding the middle ages contributes to a greater understanding of society today. And while I hope the rest of you keep saving lives and building bridges, I’ll keep plugging along. I may not be on the front lines of negotiating world peace, but I can remain subversive and inspired and hopefully, at least, shed some light on human nature.

Forgetting to Remember

I’m not gonna lie—it took a long time to unpack from my summer journey. In fact, I think there are still a few toiletries stashed in a cardboard box in the back room and some plastic bins in the basement that haven’t returned to their previous homes. Why bother, really, when I spent six weeks living abundantly out of a now-ratty, silver-grey Target suitcase?

Indeed, why bother coming home at all? There are few things the Mediterranean sun can’t cure, and I’ve never felt more alive than prowling around the museums where my favorite paintings are stashed or the churches housing objects that are sacred to an art nerd like me. Well, the little grey cat, my best drinking buddy, and the nice boy who cooks were among the most compelling reasons to return home. And also there’s the issue of that pesky PhD in art history that I simply must finish. One more year of coursework and I can take my final qualifying exam and start my dissertation.

And seriously, the PhD, for all its stress and agony, is something I truly want to accomplish. But my summer travels added another layer to my reasons for pursuing the subject of medieval studies—an interest in its relevance today, in ideas that manifested themselves centuries ago and never went away. The Renaissance, that so-called Early Modern period, wasn’t a rebirth of anything, really; in many ways it incorporated new ways of interpreting ideas that had been hanging around for a long time while temporarily sweeping other ideas under the rug. In the present, we can ponder some new ways of seeing those ideas.

For instance, not long ago I ran across an article in The New York Times claiming that moving your studying location from one spot to another can help you retain information better than having a permanent, predetermined homework location.[i] Associating various places with information helps to burn it into memory. As both a student and a teacher, I found this inspiring. You mean it’s okay for me to sneak off to the park or the house where I’m cat-sitting to do homework because I’m just too bored to keep reading at my desk? And why did science take so long to share this wisdom? My first exposure to a ‘work smarter, not harder’ mode of thinking actually came from Scrooge McDuck, but apparently the concept is much older than a 1980s cartoon.

When I shared the article with a friend who teaches writing to high school students, he reminded me that both ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans were well aware of the connection between location and memory, citing the ancient technique of memory rooms and medieval monks’ technique for learning Stations of the Cross. The method of loci was invented by Simonides of Ceos, a poet who lived around 500 BCE. He recalled a long list of individuals by memorizing their locations within an imaginary building; moving around that imagined location served as a mnemonic device for him to conjure up their names.[ii] In the middle ages Christian pilgrims would often pray at the Stations of the Cross by pausing before each of a series of images of Christ’s passion, “physically retracing this path and meditating upon the events,” in order to experience and remember each scene of the narrative.[iii] Humanity’s great thinkers to have spent much time considering the most effective ways of controlling and organizing memory, including Cicero, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas who wrote, “whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider and set in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another.”[iv] In centuries when literacy was rare, flashcards were unheard of, and multitasking hadn’t been invented, mnemonic devices were not only useful but necessary means for maintaining knowledge.

Ah, putting my thoughts in order. Forming a strategy for studying. Not getting buried under a pile of books. These are things a harried grad student often forgets to do. And strategies many students never really learn at all. (I’ve lost track of how many undergrads have claimed they’re “just not good with names and dates.” Join the club, folks). So of course the ancients are a good starting point for how to tackle a pile of homework and avoid the often-ephemeral character of just-read pages. The Times articles is just one more contribution to the wisdom of the ages on a subject that is just as relevant now as it was two thousand years ago.


[i] Benedict Carey, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” The New York Times, September 6, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html

[ii] “mnemonic adj. n.”  A Dictionary of Psychology. Edited by Andrew M. Colman. Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  CUNY Graduate Center.  22 October 2010  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t87.e5144>

[iii] “Stations of the Cross,” in Leslie Ross, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenport Publishing Group, 1996.

[iv] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume 3 (Part II, Second Section), Q. 49 Art. 2. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Drinking a Coke with Elvis and the Mayor

In Mola di Bari, the last stop on my journey, I asked my host whether a tiny structure tucked into a fork in the road was a church or a tomb of some sort. He told me it’s a calvario, the last stop on the procession around town that takes place on the patron saint’s feast day. Almost every town has one. Inside this one is a crucifix and an altar and a little shrine, all visible behind a locked gate. In the mostly-Protestant Deep South, where I grew up, there’s a shortage of saints and festivals and pilgrimage sites. The closest we’ve got is Graceland, a place that is still high on my List of Things to Do in This Lifetime.

I volunteer for an organization that plans to set up an artist residency in Mola, so this part of the trip included a little bit of scouting and picture taking. The residency is named after Don Pedro, a twentieth-century artist and architect who grew up there and produced a large public garden in the town during the 1970s. I also met with a few people who are interested in the group and who enlivened the trip quite a bit. The city is truly an iconic small town. The piazza is completely desolate during siesta (which lasts from about noon until four thirty) and is overrun with every age and demographic after dark when the carousel, puppet show, concert hall, and cafe scene come to life. You can’t take twelve steps without running into someone you know (this was true for me even after about two days) and that’s good because the main activity is walking around the huge fountain or along the water.

One of my first encounters in Mola was a meeting with the mayor. My new friend and translator took me to city hall to ask around and find out whether I could set up a meeting, and after talking to about five people in various parts of the civic building, we found an assistant who told us to come back at seven that evening. It turns out that the mayor was good friends with Don Pedro and he has quite a few stories about the artist’s vision and goals for refurbishing the garden. He was so enthusiastic about my planned trek to the garden that he offered to take us there the next day. So bright and early we drove there, listening to stories about the artist and his methods. About how Don Pedro had dreamed of a much grander project but had been limited by bureaucracy and budget. About the intricate details of the concrete and tile work and painting involved in such a huge project and which parts the artist had constructed himself and which required sub-contractors. About faded colors and areas that should be water features but now hold weeds. He pointed out that the parts Don Pedro constructed himself had withstood time and the elements more sturdily than parts that were added later with lesser craftsmanship.

It amazed me that a politician would have such an in-depth knowledge of art and such a passionate and sophisticated vocabulary for describing it. In general, the Italians have an impressive ability to talk about art much more adeptly than Americans (or any other group I can think of). For one thing, it’s not unusual for high-schoolers to take art history or art appreciation. I spoke with a high school instructor whose teaches Art History in English there, a brilliant way of incorporating two subjects into one. In Rome I had a cab driver who talked extensively about Bernini, sharing anecdotes about his career and informing me of which fountains I should prioritize on my visit. The term “art historian” doesn’t translate well, though. I had to tell people that I teach history and/or/of art but even that took a couple of tries.

When you live with the art and history on such an intimate and everyday scale, knowledge of it is a much less abstract thing than it is for us in the US. In Mola, the Norman castle is situated across the street from a newly constructed boardwalk which is being orchestrated by a prominent designer from Barcelona. The middle ages are as much a part of some cities as espresso for breakfast. But in many places, including Mola, there’s graffiti on the grounds of the medieval castle and gelato cups stuffed in the sculptures on the baroque fountain. With common knowledge comes less reverence, I suppose. But it is refreshing to see art that lives and exists as part of a town and is not stashed away in a museum, even when serving its original purpose means that it pays the price in wear and tear. Just like Don Pedro’s run-down garden.

Another excursion in the Puglia region was to the grottoes of Castellano, a series of underground caves, millions of years older than my much-adored catacombs but much more commercial, I’m afraid. Our guide was good and told us a little about the geological formations, but much of the tour was spent catering to the much-too-large unintellectual, multilingual group. The tour included stops for mineral formations that looked like a she-wolf, a ballerina’s leg, a snake, and of course, the Virgin Mary. If all these natural formations are supposed to look like something, then all the millions of years’ worth of drips and stalactites destroyed to make the electric lighting and paths and handrails are a rather widespread incident of iconoclasm. Before the people walking behind me in our over-populated cluster began naming which people of various ethnic groups in England who might get too fat to fit through the passageways (besides Americans, of course), they recounted which of their friends had gone into Australian caves despite a fear of such things and had to be escorted out. My sincere wish for Gollum to slip out from behind a rock and snatch one up like a fish did not come true, sadly. But if I walked too far ahead of them, I got entangled in a family that kept touching the delicate rocks and smacking one another. The mother actually slipped and fell as she whacked a son on the shoulder for some naughty moment. Soon after, the dad stopped traffic while he pulled a large bottle out of his purse and poured a drink for his other teenage son. In a cave, 2600 meters under ground. (Have I mentioned the trend of Italian men carrying purses? No, not man bags or satchels. This one was a white canvas shoulder bag with pink and purple paisley shapes outlined with beads and sequins. I remain baffled and amused).

I love that so much of human nature and the psychology of death and memory are represented by catacombs. All of that is entirely irrelevant, however, in the rock and mineral formations of a grotto which was formed in spite of human destruction, in harmony with tectonic movement and the flow of water and the patient layering of nature over thousands of centuries. The psychology in a cave comes from people-watching, studying how tourists react to nature and darkness, seeing the guides try to express enough geological wisdom that people learn something in a way that will hold their interest. It’s an awful lot like art history in that respect. By this point, I was back to my original set of issues that I had tried to leave behind for the summer: How do you teach art history as a useful skill and concept? How do you invoke art appreciation in kids who grew up fifteen minutes from one of the world’s great museums but never set foot inside? How do you make the middle ages relevant to an audience of professionals who think of it as a dead dark age or a setting for video games? Tolkien did it by creating Middle Earth. HBO did it with The Tudors‘ medieval equivalent of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Ruskin did it by immortalizing his beloved Venice in words and pictures. Where’s my niche in this grand and humble tradition?

After our field trip to il giardino the mayor took us for a little snack. I looked up from my Coca-Cola (it was too hot for coffee) and there was an enormous painting of Elvis watching over us. My kitchen in Park Slope also has an image of Elvis, a letterpress reproduction of a concert poster, and seeing him there in Mola was a reminder that I would soon be headed home.

*************

[I’m home now and grateful for the experience. Writing about these travels forced me to find a relevance and humanity in the places, people, and art I encountered, making it a richer experience of adventures. Thank you for reading my words and traveling with me in spirit.]

Cultural Baggage

I have been living in the Old City of Dubrovnik for four days, which is as akin to living in a medieval fortress as I will ever achieve. I completely understand why they call it the Pearl of the Adriatic–the entire town is made of sleek, polished white stone (which is fiercely slippery when wet) with red terracotta roof tiles and is perched against the technicolor Adriatic sea and a deep green cover of trees outside the walls. We tend to write off the medieval as outdated, something that has been improved upon so many times that its original incarnation has lost its relevance. But what is left of the middle ages is sturdy, solid. These medieval walls saved Dubrovnik during the 1991 civil war.

Earlier today I went to a gallery called War Photo Limited. Tucked into a stone alley in the Old City, the rooms are painted blue-grey and hold enlarged images by AP photographers during several global conflicts in the last decades. It is a collection of powerful, first-hand accounts by the photojournalists whose images are usually edited by others and whose stories are often used as a mere illustration of printed text. Just outside the gallery, the glare of the sun blinds the tourists as we traipse down the slick white Stradun, the main street, toward the Pile Gate, still guarded by an image of Saint Blaise who protected the city from Venice centuries ago and from the ravages of the twentieth century as well.

One image in the exhibition stood out because it showed the boats in the Old Harbor aflame against the cityscape and the bell tower of the Dominican monastery. It was taken from approximately the same spot where I had lunch on a terrace overlooking the busy scene of families and sailors and gelato stands and booths for promoting day cruises. There is a room in the Rector’s Palace, not far from that some Dominican church, that houses a memorial for the Dubrovnik Defenders, the men and boys who died defending the city in 1991. It is simply designed, patriotic and respectful but not sappy. A tattered scrap of fabric is framed on one wall, a flag that flew over Dubrovnik during that time. Its shabbiness reminded me of the original Star-Spangled Banner (although I remember the viewing of the American one was quite a production in when it was revealed to a dramatic rendition of the national anthem in DC when I was ten.) Here the walls hold sepia-toned photos of the Defenders, many of them fuzzy or bitmapped, most likely scanned and cropped from a family photo or Christmas snapshot. Their ages ranged from young boys who would probably be my age now to older men, someone’s dad, maybe even grandfathers by now. A video shows images of the destruction.

There was a similar and even less steady balance of polished tourist attractions and remnants of destruction in Mostar, a town in Bosnia-Herzogovenia where I took a bus excursion this week. People from tour guides to locals to guidebooks are loathe to go into detail about the civil war there, tip-toeing around causes and sides and focusing only on the general devastation and eventual rebuilding. The bridge there is the most obvious example, rebuilt after its destruction with the same technology and materials that the Ottomans had used four hundred years earlier. I remember brushing off the Channel 1 News reports of the Bosnian Civil War in high school homeroom. Trying to figure out why Anderson Cooper was dodging bullets required more political understanding than my fourteen-year-old comprehension was willing to undertake. The excursion day left me feeling a bit hypocritical, going there on a plush bus and taking a few photos of the still-deconstructed blocks surrounded by shiny new buildings and calling myself an educated visitor.

On this trip I have been coming to terms with being a tourist. Or a traveler. Or whatever you want to call meandering with a suitcase. I certainly don’t look down on people for earning a living from tourists. And kitchy souvenirs are my specialty (here is where I confess to purchasing a trivet made entirely of seashells). So why do I look down on myself when I have crossed some sort of line in the imaginary travel sand, as if my wanderings aren’t quite worthy enough to provide any real knowledge or depth of experience? Is it even possible to have an inauthentic experience if you’re actually living it?

Yesterday, for instance, I took a pre-packaged day cruise which managed to encapsulate all of my hopes for a summer vacation. It was a three-island boat tour and beach jaunt with a “fish picnic” or FISH PICNIC! as the brochures and signs on the booths at the Old Harbor claim.  Being out on the sea, facing away from the boat with my feet dangling over the edge above the water was a perfect afternoon of freedom.

This tourist-based economy is no Disneyland. Just below the surface of hospitality and peaceful surroundings is a series of deep wounds. But the mere experience of being here is living. I found an apartment to stay in through a woman listed in the guidebook. She gathered from my email that I was a solo traveler and although she had no rooms available, she made a few calls and found me other places to stay. I inadvertantly cracked up a Bosnian barista when I ordered a coffee–he stretched out his hand so I put mine out to shake it, not realizing it is like Italy where you pay first, and he just wanted my receipt. I could hear the whole bar staff chuckling as he related the story to them while I paid. Some Italian tourists on the boat yesterday invited me to join them as we explored the Elafiti Islands and ate our fish picnic. They live near Mola, the next stop on my journey. Last night I listened to a trio of fiddlers play “Man of Constant Sorrows” bluegrass-style in front of the cathedral in town near Orlando’s column. And today, I spent the afternoon walking around the top of the city walls, surveying the town that houses some surprisingly good Renaissance art, many icons and reliquaries, a million cruise ship tourists, and some pretty good shopping.

This morning I left the key to my apartment in the box outside and began the long climb down 120 medieval stone steps. I have a hard and fast rule of only packing what I can carry, so there’s no self-pity here regarding the absurd weight of my suitcase. It’s entirely my own fault. On the way down there were people socializing on the steps, as usual, and a man thoughtfully gestured to his companions that they should get out of my way. The two women stared at me and leaned on the walls. I quipped, “next time I’m bringing a backpack!” and one of them replied with a sullen, judgemental “yes, that’s too big.” Seriously? Feeling the need to defend myself and not be seen as one of those girls who packs more shoes than she can carry, I said I’d been living out of it for six weeks. They continued to stare at me as a struggled on each step and I heard her say to the other behind my back, “I’d just throw it down the stairs. I wouldn’t carry that thing.” I could hear the pursed lips and wrinkled nose as she eyed my sweaty descent and dirt-streaked Target luggage–filled with clothes and postcards and sea stones and journals and other precious items–with distaste. I fantasized momentarily about marching back up there and bouncing it off her head. Ah, yes, a reminder of why I like vacationing in places where I don’t speak the language.

Near the bottom, a man eating gelato with his family jumped up to help me with the last few stairs. Grazie mille, sir. Even with my only-what-you-can-carry rule, I am no less grateful for people who are stronger (and kinder) than I am.

The Guide Book Conundrum

Don’t go to Naples on a Tuesday. Or just give in to peer pressure and don’t go to Naples at all. My loyalty officially lies with the rest of the country.

After an uncomfortable morning in my noisy, suburban cruise-ship of a hotel in Sorrento, I set out to Napoli to see the Archaeological Museum, the one that holds most of the art for Pompeii. Given my penchant for all things volcanic or catacomb-related, you can imagine my excitement level. So I set out from Garibaldi train station with my copy of Rick Steves and almost immediately realized I was turned around. Some neighborhood types looked at me curiously but the ones who offered to help were ten-year-old boys playing soccer. They kept calling me bella and pointing me in the direction of the street behind the playground when a blonde woman pulled me by the elbow toward the actual (and opposite) direction of the museum. I hypocritically gave thanks for the kindness of strangers while clutching my purse tightly.

At the imposing museum I found a guard who informed me that the day was Tuesday and Tuesday is the one day the museum is closed and I could come back tomorrow. Er, no. My initial reaction was to get back to the train and leave. No Farnese Gallery. No secret room. I felt stupid and disappointed. This was the only site I had any interest in seeing. But since I claim to love baroque architecture, perhaps a glimpse of Neopolitan Baroque would be in order. And I had promised myself Neopolitan pizza. So I played a quick mental game of “What Would Rick Steves Do?” and set out with my guide book’s walking tour in hand.

I tried buying a city map from a magazine vendor but it cost seven euros and he wouldn’t let me take off the shrink wrap first. Since about half his wares were porn mags or videos entitled “sex game” there was a higher than average possibility it wouldn’t be my kind of map, so I declined. Following the walking tour, I trekked through gritty streets and past baroque monuments and grimy architecture, dutifully reading about each landmark like a good little tourist.

Santa Chiara was the most colorful surprise of the day. The cloister is decorated with majolica-tiled columns and benches surrounded by seventeenth-century wall paintings on the surrounding structures. The seating areas are interwoven with a grove of trees and shrubs, making it a delightful oasis that feels light-years away from the graffitied monuments just outside the walls. The museum there has fantastic lifelike reliquaries and even some sort of foot relic. There are architectural remnants of the medieval church from before the WWII bombing. There was also a Neopolitan creche tucked into a corner room. It is as intricate and delicate a manger scene as the one at the Met every Christmas, minus the tree. There was also an archaeological excavation on site–a Roman spa. I think it was uncovered after the Allied bombing. Well, Roman baths are not catacombs but the two are remarkably similar in showing life and memory and engineering. The aqueduct aspect of the Roman system is always fascinating to witness.

The church itself was closed. In fact, every church I passed was closed. Oh, Tuesday. So I continued the walking tour through outdoor market stalls selling make-your-own creche figurines and good luck charms, a bookstore with an abundance of Dickens and Danielle Steele (apparently that’s what we English-speakers need because I’ve seen plenty of both), past the statue of the Nile and the shrine to some soccer player. I got a guidebook-approved strawberry gelato at the oldest gelateria in town and looked for my last destination–the promised recommended pizza options at the end of the hours-long tour. One of them actually rolled down its gate and closed up shop while I watched, gelato in hand, from across the street. I asked directions to the other and two people informed me it did not exist anymore. I saw a sign with its name around the corner, but the half-closed gate revealed only some old chairs. Didn’t really look like a restaurant. So either tourists are strongly discouraged from entering or it is just closed. I hung my head in defeat and trudged through the last leg of the town, all the while wishing I hadn’t worn the eternally inappropriate flip-flops or was at least armed with a tetanus shot. I muttered to myself that next time I need Gritty But Cultured, I’ll opt for Sicily.

I was prepared to rant and rave about the inadequacies of my guide book when I noted the tiny “closed Tues.” under the museum entry. Oops. But it was bound to happen sooner or later, and it brings to light the eternal conundrum of how closely to follow a guide book and how much to let your inner wanderer take the reins instead.

I know people who have laminated itineraries weeks before departure and others who can’t even be bothered with reservations. There’s also the eternal question of which books to use and which to bring along on the trip. Should you take print-outs of the important stuff? What about websites? What if you’re going away for six weeks and would need to take a sabbatical just to plan the thing carefully?

In the last month I have tried a variety of strategies to varying degrees of success. Ideally you need a guide book for every city but definitely one for every country. My guide to the entire Mediterrandean just wasn’t detailed enough for Malta and Gozo but was fine for Assisi. All the guidebooks I have used are pretty bad for art. There are Blue Guides, useful for art and architecture but lacking in pictures and charmingly dull in their descriptions, fondly known as the travel guide only an academic could love. Eyewitness books are my favorite for pictures–you know what to look for at least–but the information is fairly shallow. Lonely Planet is good for restaurants and hotels but not for art or culture. Rick Steves is dependable but he’s so doggone positive about everything that it is hard to tell when a site or city isn’t really worth the trouble. He’s just not snarky enough to be completely unbiased and the visuals and maps are not so great. My great guide book revelation came recently when I friend told me about the vast collection of them at the Brooklyn Public Library. They have hundreds of travel guides from various publishers and although they aren’t all up to date, the volume of information available makes for a great trip-planning afternoon.

But the more important element is whether you make good use of your time. Reading the walking tour was entertaining but it made me have to stop frequently to gape and made me stick out as a tourist even more than usual. I did not enjoy the dutiful guidebook approach. I would rather read a little ahead of time, circle the things I want to see on a map, and venture to as many as I can in a logical order. It leaves more time and space for meandering and surprises. The downside is that it does not necessarily minimize time in train stations and still requires some research regarding opening hours and strategy.

I guess in general I would rather go on a treasure hunt for one painting than complete an art walk full of amazing things I don’t care about. There was a two-day span in Florence of trekking to tiny churches on the other side of the river and trying to navigate siesta times for all of them while hunting for Pontormo’s Deposition. On the search I managed to see the Pitti Palace gardens, many back streets, the jewelry stores of the Ponte Veccio, and several baroque chapels. When I at last found the church, I peeked inside and I could almost hear the figures in the painting welcoming me while my inner nine-year-old squealed “Pontormo! Pontormo!” as some tourists put a euro in the box to illuminate the shady chapel. Yes, with a little better research I could have taken a cab straight to the church. But the glee of finding that dim chapel with the airy grandeur of that work of art is irreplacable.

So what’s a traveler to do? Do we pack an extra suitcase full of travel guides? Wing it all the way? Make a list and check it twice? I really could have used an iPad on this trip for ebooks, email, and uploading photos. Maybe in the future it will be a matter of streamlining that way. Until then I will keep collecting tiny adventures wherever I can.

After the Great Neopolitan Debacle, I got turned around again and had to ask directions to Piazza Garibaldi from an old man in a chair. Old men in chairs are generally reliable sources of information because they rarely make cat-calls and obviously know the neighborhood from sitting around in it all day. A younger guy overheard and waved me in the right direction as well, making sure I crossed the treacherous street with him and glancing periodically to make sure I was following along. My pessimistic self held the bag tightly and waited for him to ask for money or something, but both assumptions were completely unjustified. He kept an eye on me until I assured him “va bene, va bene” and stopped at a magazine stand. It’s as if he and the blonde lady were protective toward the uninitiated tourist. You poor, dumb thing. Let me get you where you’re going so our city’s reputation isn’t further sullied by you wandering around and losing your purse. Or perhaps not. Maybe I’ve been too hard on Naples and its shadowy faded grandeur. Either way, I am grateful.

That evening I rode the train back to Sorrento where I finally got to witness a saint’s procession and its accompanying fireworks show. The evening ended in an English Pub with some American sidekicks and the telling of good stories over vacation cocktails.  It was not even remotely Mediterranean or authentic or cultural, but by golly, it was a satisfying end to a long day.

The Greek Word for Fire

On Monday I stood in a summer hailstorm near the top of Mount Etna. Then it started to thunder. An hour earlier it had been a sunny day on Taormina’s beachy coast. Now it was freezing and wet; there was no visibility. I was on top of the world near Vulcan’s forge.

All the other tourists had on rain gear or ran for cover like they had good sense. “Bloody hell,” was the most apt description overheard. I, on the other hand stood there grinning like a Cheshire cat. In college, I thought Rocks for Jocks, er, Geology 101 was like being tuned in to the universe in a new way. I even color-coded my notes–red for igneous rocks (named after the Greek word for fire); blue for sedimentary; I have no idea what the green one was–and have thought of the earth in multi-colored layers ever since. Mythology, on the other hand, always seemed bizarre to me. I had little appreciation of ancient tall tales until I actually experienced the Mediterranean landscape.

Comino, the tiny island north of Malta, is one that lays claim to being the Isle of Calypso. I passed it on a ferry ride to Gozo. The lands of that entire area are bare and rocky monochrome, surrounded by miles of deep blue water. But in the lagoons and inlets, glimpsed through patches of rock, you can see bright turquoise patches of water on the beach. None of us had to be duct-taped to the mast but I could understand the sirens’ call in terms of vivid color sparkling on land during such a mesmerizingly bland, endless sea voyage.

It’s also easy to imagine either Vulcan or the Cyclops setting up residence on Etna as well. Lacking a knowledge of earth science, any society would search for an explanation of the cranky, tempermental landscape that could swallow a village whole with little warning. Even now the buildings merely perch among the layers of green and black, temporary but patient. If you had told me during the heat wave in Rome that I would soon be buying a souvenir sweatshirt at a tourist stand 2500 meters above civilization, I would have laughed and welcomed the irony. Apparently that afternoon’s stormy reminder was to assure us that the volcano would happily have eaten us alive. But she didn’t need a snack. 

As the bus meandered down the mountain, the vibrant Sicilian landscape reemerged, revealing patches of almond and olive trees planted in neat rows along with layers and layers of unkempt trees that looked like moss on stones from a distance, all engulfed by clouds and pale grey sky, guarding us from the sea. Then a rainbow spread out between us and Etna, as if to apologize for the outburst up there. By that time, our group had found warm coffee and dry socks; of course we forgave her.

Romans and Rocks

After my encounter with the mummified crocodile, the universe was back in balance. As promised, my ticket to the museum of Saint Agatha’s did, in fact, include a tour. The tour was of the catacombs! And luckily, there were  no alphabetized minerals or unlabeled milestones to decipher. They were, in fact, really good catacombs.

The guide began with a warning for those who are claustrophobic or asthmatic, emphasizing that he could only take 15 people for 15 minutes, tops, and cheerfully added that the lights would go off automatically as incentive to get out because of CO2 issues. No one mentioned that our group was over 20 in number, so I just tried to stay near the front.

His talk was played up for effect, of course, but he had some good stories. After giving us a brief summary of the Life of Agatha (a medieval Sicilian saint who fled to Malta for haven against persecution before she was martyred) he took us deeper underground. This catacomb area was pretty well-excavated but had a much grittier, more accessible feel than the slick, touristy ones in Rome. For one thing, we could touch the walls and when he stopped in certain corridors to lecture, we were invited to sit on the rock ledges, the very ones that early Christians used for prayer and rituals. Some of the spaces still contain skeletal remains, a highly unusual “museum” practice. At one point, the teenage boy beside me and I realized that we were sitting in a niche that was actually an empty burial chamber. We silently met each other’s wide-eyed gaze and got out of there as soon as possible. The way we react to catacombs–their history as well as their present incarnation as museum/thrill provider–is quite a study in human nature. Toward the end, the lights flickered off for a second and the yelped, truncated “Jeez…” from the woman behind me was followed with her triumphant, “but I didn’t curse!” as her family chided her for the outburst. The thought of hanging out in a pitch-dark catacomb with CO2 issues was a momentarily terrifying and thrilling sensation, one that made me think of what it must have been like in the light of oil lamps two thousand years ago when the Christian, Jewish, pagan, Finnish, and Punic burials were taking place there.

The guide pointed out stone tables carved into the ground, mentioning that others like these had been destroyed in Rome because Gregory the Great and other popes wanted to put a stop to the meal of remembrance that Christians held at the graves. He claimed it was because drunkenness and orgies had become to common at these events. Obviously, I haven’t fact-checked these statements, but hey, it’s great theater. I can say that the meal at the grave was common in late Roman times and that he correctly pointed out that catacombs were not used for hiding from persecution as is often insisted by dramatic tour guides everywhere. What’s fascinating about these is that Maltese residents did use them for bomb shelters during World War II. Imagine being whisked away from daylight into a centuries-old series of tombs, wondering if it will be your own resting place.

There are still subtle traces like that of the war on this island.

After the catacombs, I got a snack at a patisserie and found the grotto of St. Paul, another underground niche, this one decorated with a sculpture and votive candles, commemorating where Paul used to escape the crowds and come to pray in peace and quiet. I explored the church above which was nice, but Lonely Planet had promised a fantastic shipwreck fresco and the only one I could find was merely adequate.

It seemed like I’d squeezed all the fun and culture I could out of the town, so I headed back to the bus stop where I was told that I actually needed to go to the bus depot which turned out to be a parking lot down the street. As usual, the bus took forever. Drivers from other buses hung out, smoked, slept on the park bench, possibly explaining the public transportation system quite well.

But waiting for the bus gave me time to rally, so I decided to follow a road sign to the Roman Domus and see what fate would bring me. The guard/ticket seller in the sleepy little museum there made my day. The domus is a museum built on the plan of an excavated Roman townhouse.  when I showed him my student ID for a discount, he asked what I was studying and insisted I go next to see the Durers at the Cathedral Museum (which I somehow missed) and the National Gallery. Before handing me a laminated brochure, he insisted I finish the phrase, “a thing of beauty is…”.

The museum itself was nicely laid out. Along the cobalt walls there were samples of Islamic graves found over the Roman site as well as Roman sculptures, household items, and clay vessels. But as I breezed through these, my Keats-quoting guide shuffled over, tapped me on the shoulder, and lead me to the area that overlooks the mosaics on the floor below. “It would be a shame for you to miss this,” he murmured before launching into an explanation of the three-dimensional effects that the ancient mosaic artists were able to achieve. Sure enough, there’s a labyrinth design in the flat tiles that makes it look like a prototype of an M.C. Escher drawing. The mosaics were beautiful, “… a joy forever,” certainly. On my way out, he gave me a brochure of a popular film about Malta, pointing to a postage-stamp sized photo of a mosaic on the inside. “A souvenir of your trip.” Lovely. It will be taped into my scrapbook.

On the way home it occurred to me that Assisi, the shining, Tolkein-esque white beacon on an Umbrian hill seems rather preppy compared with Valletta, the quirky, against-the-grain time capsule rising above the cliffs.

Today’s only goal was to read a book at the beach. Surely I could succeed at that without any weird encounters! Last night at dinner I met a lovely English couple who have been vacationing here for 60 years. They suggested Paradise Bay, a tiny cove at the top of the island, with a small, sandy beach and a large jellyfish net. Today’s bus made me realize that each one is decorated like a cubicle–slightly personalized by the driver. This one had a much nicer post-baroque icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ holding hearts with “In God We Trust” hand-lettered at the bottom. I supposed it would be weird to people in other countries that I associate those words with George Washington and money. There was also a sticker that said, “You don’t have to be Mad to work here, BUT IT HELPS!” I had come prepared by picking up a couple of pastizzi (Maltese empanadas) and a Coke.

After about an hour, the driver pulled over beside the highway and announced we’d made it to Paradise Bay. A nice German couple I’d exchanged pleasantries with on the bus were my only company. The man decided the driver had cheated by putting us out too soon and it did seem that we’d have to walk on the side of the road a few more yards before hitting the path to the ocean. I asked if I could join them and we took off down an unpaved path in the general direction of some water but away from moving traffic. There was a ramshakle building, a camper trailer, two dogs within a fence, and an old couple sitting outside asking us what on earth we were doing there in a heavy, heavy accent and (in his case) without a shirt. When we explained he generously offered to let us through his back yard, “a short cut” toward the paved path, and we took off. The land was full of porous moon rocks (or possibly limestone), dried brambles, and hot sand. There were a few visible cacti, occasional strands of barbed wire, and more than a few large boulders to navigate. I was once again wearing the eternally inappropriate flip-flops. The husband announced cheerfully, “our 372nd adventure of the day!” Ah, kindred spirits. Then, by way of explanation, he mentioned they’d been taking the bus a lot. If it weren’t for the jovial Germans I would have pondered whether there was a Maltese version of Deliverance, but luckily the actual paved path (and the many tourists thereon) were visible just over the hill.

And at the end of the trek, we found ourselves gazing down into a bay of cool, toothpaste-colored water and rocky ledges surrounding a sandy beach lined with festive blue umbrellas. There was a hazy castle of some sort on the horizon, and I half expected the Goonies’ pirate ship to sail into view. Paradise Bay. So worth the journey.

All I needed was a good book and an afternoon at the Paradise Bay lido.

Valletta, a pearly white city on the blue sea, the capital city of Malta.

The church above Saint Paul's grotto, commemorating his shipwreck on the island with a timeline in red: "AD 60-2010."

If Only They’d Warned Me About the Mummified Crocodile

Malta is one wacky place. Valletta, the capital city, is beautiful and shabby and boring and altogether too much excitement for a beach vacation. The language and food taste north African while the temperament is decidedly British. The city itself looks like an eccentric Mediterranean baroque sculptor chiseled it out of a single piece of yellowish white limestone and placed it on the rocks above a deep blue body of water. The hills are steep like San Francisco and in some places, steps are actually carved into the sidewalks, each about three inches high and a foot and a half wide. They’re exactly the wrong shape for someone my height and I have to be careful not to stumble.

Yesterday I watched Maltese kids in floaties jump off a limestone “beach” in the city, literally a carved, flat piece of land that juts out into the water and serves as a large diving board. I watched sailboats in the harbor and went to see the swoon-worthy, larger-than-life Caravaggio painting of The Beheading of John the Baptist in the very room where he was ceremoniously kicked out of the Order. (For the record the underestimated Saint Jerome on the back wall of that chapel is just as beautiful). I paid homage in the War Museum and talked to some tourists and locals and walked almost every inch of the city before  dinnertime which is super early in this town. Obviously, today I needed an excursion of some sort.

So I broke out the Lonely Planet guidebook and hopped on the bus to Mdina (a medieval walled city) and Rabat (its outside-the-walls extension) in order to see the lovely frescoes, early Christian spiritual havens, and charming architecture. I should start by commenting that every time you ask directions here you get an explanation that makes it seem terribly simple to get from point A to point B until you get out the door and the cityscape is a giant dollhouse of hilly white limestone. Some maps have English street names and others have Maltese, so basic navigation makes a simple grid-based city into a multi-layered project.

From this lovely melting pot of civilized complexity, I encountered the bus system and promptly set foot in a third world country. I had forgotten there were places on earth that make the NYC MTA look efficient. After much honking and yelling in the circular bus park,  the trip began. The orange buses look like elongated VW vans from the 1970s and seem to  have lost their shocks in that decade as well. Behind the driver is a sign with hand-painted flowers and the bus number. Beside that is a glass case built above the driver to house a vintage polychromed plastic bust of the Virgin Mary who has, unfortunately, seen better days. The information booth man had told me the trip would take about 25 minutes, (“depends on your driver”) and the cowboys behind the wheel do work hard to tame the orange beast as it swerves through the countryside, a bleak but humid desert with the bland limestone made into rock walls and fences instead of baroque churches and homes. I gave the driver my 50-cent piece, got change, and sat on the second row. The old man behind me tapped my shoulder and murmured “just give him exact change next time,” in a hushed, urgent tone. Um, thank you. At the next stop, a boy with a backpack got on the bus, offered 50 cents, got three back. No one said anything to him about it.

I got off the bus with a few other tourists and followed road signs and arrows through a crumbling town and a gas station and over narrow sidewalks near cars that were driving on both sides of the road. By that point I was actually missing Rome’s dart-and-dash strategy. The first store clerk I met was quite quizzical when I asked about a city map. Perhaps some other store had one to sell, she suggested. Eventually I stumbled upon St. Paul’s catacombs, paid my 3 euro and read the posters on the walls detailing how many types of burials were in the catacombs below.

The catacombs themselves were weird, weird, weird. No labels except signs with numbers which apparently corresponded with an audio guide available in town. What town? The catacomb itself was a complex maze of rows and cut-out spaces that I was the doofus trying to navigate it in flip-flops. There were no guides or chaperones and very few lights. There were few steps and fewer handrails built to accommodate tourists. The Romans were normally so precise and organized that I found it baffling they would have constructed a labyrinth with so little rhyme or reason to it. Equally baffling was the amount of freedom the tourists had down there. It was a little scary when I pulled out my tiny flashlight keyring and its beam didn’t even pierce the darkness.

My next stop was at St. Agatha’s catacombs, reported to have some unique frescoes and a well-preserved maze of burial sites. I bought a ticket and was told I could see the museum before the tour. What tour? But I did as I was told and went upstairs to the museum. I was totally unprepared. The first floor consisted of geological finds–sea creatures and stones in glasses cases. There was an entire alphabet of minerals in boxes–Bonenite; Brandisite; Calcite; my favorite, Vesuvianite; Zaratite–all with stick-on plastic labels with a letter-punch label maker. Okay, but where was the church? Where were the fantastic finds that are supposed to help me write a dissertation? Where was the art? The room above that one had archaeological finds which were pretty interesting and more in keeping with a church museum, clay oil lamps from the second and third centuries, medieval marble slabs. All of this was stored in a series of dusty glass cases like the ones in Indiana Jones where the Arc is stored. In fact, the Holy Grail is probably somewhere underneath those ancient incense burners. But moving on to the third room, there was a wider variety of objects that seemed like a holy rummage sale run amok–a baby doll in a glass case set up to look like baby Jesus, an urn covered in sea shells, a Northern European baroque oil painting, a plastic sculpture of John the Baptist’s head (and only the head) mounted sideways on a pillar. And holy cow–no one in the guide books mentioned that the largest case in the church museum was reserved for a mummified crocodile, smiling like he’d just swallowed Captain Hook’s hand. If I’d known my afternoon’s epiphany would be in the form of a reptile mummy housed in a religious instutition, I would been in a better mindset for the treasure hunt of randomness that became my afternoon.

From that point on, with the mummy as my talisman, I rallied and thought of my Maltese field trip as more of a jambalaya-style mingling of elements than a prim art history excursion and my travel karma improved accordingly.

[More on Malta tomorrow.  Good night!]

Sobek, Lord of the Nile

I found out later from a German car expert that the buses are actually Chevy Impalas from the 60s.