Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sant'Agnese in Agone

after living in Rome for over a year, i had walked past the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona dozens of times, yet for various reasons had never gone inside until October. i got the gentle nudge i needed in the form of a friend's daughter who was writing a report on St. Agnes for her religious education class. i must confess, i'm typing this up far after her report needed to be submitted, but just in case any of the rest of you undertake to write a paper on this early Roman martyr, here is what i discovered!

even if you've never been to Rome, you've probably seen the exterior of this church captured in the background of shots of Bernini's famous fountain in the center of Piazza Navona. the church as it stands now was built in the 17th century by the Pamphilj family, who had come to Rome in the 15th century and promptly skyrocketed to the highest echelons of Roman society. in fact, Giovanni Battisti Pamphilj was elected Pope in 1644, cementing the family's social status. as Pope Innocent X, he oversaw the rebuilding and construction of an 11th-century church, built on the site of an 8th-century oratory, built on the traditional site of St. Agnes' martyrdom in the year 304 AD. (how's that for peeling back the onion of history?)

the Chapel of St. Agnes

 what we now know as Piazza Navona was originally built as an oval stadium for the Emperor Domitian. various sporting events and games were held here, giving rise to the name Circus Agonalis (meaning "competition"). eventually the name Agonalis transformed into Navona, but the church retains the original name. thus "in Agone" does not refer to the physical anguish of St. Agnes' martyrdom, but rather to the physical location of her death (sort of like saying "St. Agnes of Yankee Stadium").

the high altar, showing the Holy Family with John the Baptist
the dome is meant to create a sensation of the heavens being opened. the inscription
along the base of the dome reads: Ingressa Agnes turpitudinis locum,
angelum Domini praeparatum invenit.
("On entering the place
of uncleanness, Agnes found the angel of the Lord ready").

St. Agnes herself was a young girl about the age of 12 or 13, who was martyred for her faith. it is thought that her father was also a Christian because he allowed her to make a public profession of faith, which would have been highly unlikely in other circumstances. there are conflicting accounts of the exact method of her death, either by the sword or by burning, but in any event, it is supposed to have happened with in this stadium. her body was then buried in the catacombs at the Basilica of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, in northwest Rome. later, her skull was brought back to the church in Piazza Navona, where it is venerated by pilgrims every year. (more about venerating saints' relics here -- unfortunately, for some it can devolve into superstition, but for faithful Catholics it is nothing other than our natural instinct as humans to show respect for these holy men and women and to be close to objects that were close to them).

Cecilia came with me on this expedition, so we were both quite excited to spot the altar dedicated to St. Cecilia. she kept pointing to the sculpture and saying, "that's me! that's me!"

the church also holds the original baptismal font that was used to baptize St. Francesca Romana, another native Roman woman whose life turned out very differently from that of St. Agnes. St. Frances of Rome was a medieval wife, mother, healer and lay religious woman who died after a lifetime of serving the poor.

after exploring the church, we came back outside to discover the bubble man in full swing, filling the piazza with huge bubbles. poor Cecilia was a bit hampered by a wardrobe malfunction (as we were leaving her preschool she had a little accident and somehow she had no clean pants left at school, but i did have a Pull-Up and one of Greta's hoodies with me, so i put the hoodie on her upside-down like pants. all was fine when she was sitting in the stroller, but as soon as she started chasing bubbles, the hoodie started falling down and so i was constantly chasing her trying to tuck the hood back. you know, real life and all that jazz. sorry, St. Agnes!!)

Sunday, October 13, 2019

september reads

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: A Novel by [Reid, Taylor Jenkins]

1) The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. i found myself instantly immersed in this story of a journalist who meets with an aging Hollywood starlet to write her biography. an easy read that made me think about the role media plays in our culture and how that has changed (for better and for worse) over the decades. 5/5.

2) Beartown, by Fredrik Backman. oh... my... goodness. this has immediately catapulted itself onto my Top Ten list of books. Backman has populated the fictional place of Beartown with characters who feel absolutely real. a compassionate but laser-focused examination of culture in a small town obsessed with hockey. i still feel as if i could walk past any one of his characters on the street and recognize them instantly. 10/5. 
Difficult questions, simple answers. What is a community?

It is the sum total of our choices.

3) The Gunners, by Rebecca Kauffman. a story about six friends who met in childhood and how their relationships with each other and themselves evolve over the years.  i was a bit ambivalent about this book for the first half of it, and then it picked up steam. by the end of the book i was actually weeping for one of the main characters, which bumped it up to 4 stars from the 3 i originally was going to bestow. 4/5.

4) The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. the foreword to this book comes right out and says that the writing style is a bit off-putting to the modern ear -- flowery, saccharine, and melodramatic. but there is no denying the power of St. Thérèse's words as she recounts her life, from her first spiritual awakenings as a child to her life in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux, where she died of tuberculosis at the age 24. 4/5.
For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

5) An Immovable Feast: How I Gave Up Spirituality For A Life of Religious Abundance, by Tyler Blanski. as a fellow Protestant-turned-Catholic, i greatly enjoyed Tyler's story of his journey from his nondenominational evangelical parish to an Anglican seminary and finally to the Catholic church, with the same shocked inevitability that characterized my own conversion. i'm not sure his story would be that accessible to someone without a church background, but i found it inspiring. 5/5.

6) The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. i listened to this on audiobook, and i think i might have enjoyed it better in the written form. set in 1930s Mexico during a time when it was illegal to practice organized religion, the story follows a "whiskey" priest on the run from the police. as he frequently remarks about himself, he is a bad priest -- an alcoholic who has fathered an illegitimate child, who frequently denies requests for the sacraments out of fear of being caught, who eventually agrees to baptize the children in a particular village but only upon payment of a small fee for each child. a story of judgment and mercy, redemption and self-sabotage. 4/5.

Dark Matter: A Novel by [Crouch, Blake]

7) Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. this book had so many twists and turns and kept me guessing until the very last page. well, to be honest, i'm still guessing ... which is the mark of a great book, in my opinion. i didn't know that there was such a thing as a quantum physics psychological thriller, but that's most definitely what it is. 5/5.

on the October bookshelf:

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro
The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish
Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines, by Nic Sheff
My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

and in preparation for our trip to Venice next month:

The Golden Egg, by Donna Leon
In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant
Vivaldi's Virgins, by Barbara Quick

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

school days

it's 10:01 AM on Tuesday and i'm sitting at the kitchen table with my coffee and bowl of cereal in our quiet apartment. the only sounds are the tapping of my keyboard, the distant hum of a lawn mower, and the quiet whirring of the air conditioner (yes, it's October 1 and yes, the high temperature will be 79° today). it's bizarre and amazing and unsettling, all at the same time. at least the familiar detritus of shoes, toys, and half-drunk cups of milk leftover from breakfast remains -- because i'm sitting down to write this instead of cleaning it all up! 

the first day of preschool. melt my heart!

Greta insisted on wearing this exact outfit, and on bringing her beloved Candy and Cat-i-corn to school

we're now into our third week of school, and this is the first time both girls have been out of the house regularly while i'm home. it's very strange. i didn't think it would be, because in Pittsburgh, they both were in daycare three days a week, but then, i was headed off to work and so most of my time apart from them was spent seeing patients, returning phone calls, filling out forms, arguing with insurance companies, and chatting with coworkers. now i find myself with roughly 15 kid-free hours a week and it's just -- strange. i love the quiet and the freedom. i miss them. i vacillate between super productive cleaning sprees around the house (without interruption, and without the other rooms getting destroyed in the process), or just sitting down with my book and reading for a few hours (!), or more likely, some combination of the above. i've been able to spend more time doing freelance transcription work and it feels good to help contribute a teeny bit financially to our household, but then of course, that extra money is going right back out as preschool tuition for Cecilia, so is it really making a difference?

well, i think the school experience in itself is worth it. both girls are doing really well, although of course there have been ups and downs. i completely misjudged how they would react to the beginning of the school year. my introvert Greta who thrives on hours of self-directed imaginative play, loves to stay up late, and hates being forced to sit and down and work on a project unless it's her own idea -- i thought she was going to kick against the goads of kindergarten (scuola primaria in Italian). and we've certainly had the morning outbursts of "i don't want to go to school! i want to stay in bed!" (don't we all?!), but for the most part, she has taken to school like she was born to do it. on her first day, she looked so tiny carrying her huge backpack up to the classroom and sitting at an actual desk, but she was so excited to see her school friends and she was absolutely overjoyed when she met her teacher. "Mommy, she's so pretty and she's kind! and she speaks a little English, too!" the first day of class was abbreviated, from 9 AM to noon, and when i picked her up, she came running down the stairs with her other classmates with a huge smile on her face. i asked her what her favourite part of the day was and she said, "all the things!" and chatted excitedly the whole way home.

lining up with the rest of her class

where did my baby go?!

all smiles when it was time for the parents to leave

this is what greets you as you leave her hallway!

Cecilia, on the other hand, was completely thrown for a loop by the prospect of staying in a class without her big sister or Mommy and Daddy. she knows the teacher very well already, and she knows several of the kids in the class (since it's a mixed age class for 3- to 5-year-olds, she knows the kids who were there last year). and she's much more outgoing and carefree than Greta, so i figured she would just be delighted to play. nope! on the first day she was a little confused so she didn't put up much of a fuss when we left, but the next day she knew what was coming and cried and screamed when i tried to say goodbye. she whimpered, "but Mommy, i'm too little to be without a gome-up!" (grown-up) i gave her a huge hug and said, "i know, sweetie, that's why Maestra Agata and Maestra Yasmin are going to take care of you! they're going to be the grown-ups to take care of you at school!" and in a heartbreaking sob, she said, "but they're not Mommy!!" oof, talk about a knife to the heart. of course i wondered if we were actually doing the right thing. maybe she wasn't ready for preschool after all. but the teachers were great with coming up with strategies to help the kids transition, including having them bring in a favorite stuffed animal and having the parent pick them up early. a few times that first week, Cece's teacher called Greta's teacher and had Greta come to the preschool classroom a few minutes before their morning break/snack time to play with Cece, which really helped. and i picked her up after ninety minutes or so. most days she would say, "i was a bit shy, and i cried a little bit, but Maestra helped me feel better." 

and lo and behold, on Friday of that first week, she gave me a huge hug and walked into the classroom without looking back. on Monday of the second week, she ran into the class and gave her teacher a huge hug. and ever since, she's been completely delighted to go to school (as i predicted she would be from the beginning). as much as it broke my heart to leave her crying those few days, i'm also so proud of her for adjusting and i think it's so important for her to develop healthy attachments to other caring adults. i pick her up around 11:30 every day and she tells me all about her day -- painting, coloring with markers, building with blocks, singing, and reading books. she loves to hang her jacket on her hook (marked with her special symbol, a yellow flower -- "fiore giallo," she announces proudly). she's picked up a fair amount of Italian and the other day she told me, "Maestra said, 'Vieni qua!' (come here) and so I comed!" 

special dinner of spaghetti carbonara on the first day of school. both girls ate two bowls full!

 we celebrated the end of the first week of school with a special trip to Bimbo Time. the girls love it because of the carousel, rides, arcade games, and ball pit. Nick and i mostly love it because we can't stop giggling over the name.

while Greta was off to a great start at school and still loves her classes, it's been a bit of adjustment to transition out of preschool mode to actual classwork. i think i took three different trips to the home goods store and the stationery store and probably made two or three Amazon purchases to finally round out all of the school supplies she needed -- specific kinds of notebooks with rules and squares, specific kinds of pens and pencils, another specific type of drawing sketchpad, a laminated placemat and apron for painting, and plastic covers to fit all her school books (which are beautifully colored with glossy pages!). and of course, everything has to be labeled with her name. she decided this year that she wants to be called Margaret at school, which is precisely why we wanted to give her the full form of the name (i'm a Katharine, and loved being able to transition from Katie to Kate!). 

there were two lists of supplies like this, and they were nearly the death of me! 
but we have been having a mighty battle over homework, which is annoying to say the least. i'm annoyed that they even have homework in the first place, because they spend 30 hours a week in class. Monday, Wednesday and Friday they are in school from 8 AM to 1 PM (with a morning break), and then Tuesday and Thursday they are in school from 8 AM to 5 PM (with morning and afternoon breaks, and 90 minutes break for lunch/free play). that's a lot at ages five and six! but the homework is only assigned on their "short" days and it's typically 4 pages total: 2 pages out of a math workbook and 2 pages out of an Italian workbook. at this point, the workbooks are very easy (for example, tracing and then writing the number 3, drawing an object to complete a set of 3, or practicing the cursive letter O), so it's probably ten or fifteen minutes' worth of work. so then i'm annoyed that it can take literally hours for us to get through it. i mean, we don't sit at the table for hours because neither her sanity nor mine could take that, but at times she just refuses to do it. i really can't blame her for wanting (and needing!) to have unstructured play time, and of course i don't have her sit down to do her homework as soon as she gets back from school, but then again, it's stuff she could easily do within minutes and be done with it. 

well, yesterday i finally decided to sweeten the pot for her a little bit and we made a sticker reward chart and scheduled in breaks (5 minute break after each page, and a half-hour break between the two workbooks). she did the math homework without too much grumbling, and then sat down and did the Italian homework perfectly in FIVE MINUTES. two pages, just like that, the way i knew she could! i wanted to hug her and strangle her at the same time. and also, i have much more insight into the struggles i'm sure my own mother had with homeschooling me, because i'm pretty sure i pulled the same kinds of foolishness with her. 

all that to say, it's been good. i'm so glad we have a good school within easy walking distance, with good friends and good teachers. and i'm stepping out of my comfort zone a little bit with the other parents. last year, if i didn't know how to say what i wanted to say in perfect Italian, i just wouldn't say anything, so our conversations never really progressed beyond "ciao, come stai?" or "che carino, che bello!" (how cute, how nice, commenting on their children). now, my Italian is a little better, but i also realized that it's a lot less awkward if i just make the attempt to have a conversation, throwing in English words now and then. many of them do speak at least a little English, so we can at least have a somewhat meaningful exchange rather than me just standing there with a weird smile on my face. 

the preschoolers wear this tuta da ginnastica (sports suit) on Tuesdays and Thursdays for gym class

Cecilia showing me her muscles

this is Greta's old tracksuit from last year. at €50, i was not about to buy another one for Cece
so the waistband of her pants is rolled over about three times. sorry, kid! 

and now, i've got just enough time to do a whirlwind clean of the kitchen and maybe fold a basket of laundry before i head down the hill to pick up Cecilia. i'm excited to see what the rest of the year brings! 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Castel Gandolfo

the weekend after arriving back in Rome, we took another day trip to Castel Gandolfo, the little town perched above a volcanic lake about 20 miles south of Rome. the town is most famous for the Apostolic Palace, which used to be the papal summer residence. Pope Francis no longer spends time here, so instead, the palace has been turned into a museum. yet again, i had to marvel at the ease and affordability of this last-minute trip. we booked regional train tickets online the day before. i read the itinerary about ten times because it said that we would switch trains in Termini and then the second train would be substituted by a bus service due to construction on the rail lines. i wasn't quite sure where we would board this bus, but assumed it would just be in front of the train station in Ciampino. at any rate, i had the paper with the name and number of the bus and decided we'd figure it out when we got there!

i have to say these excursions are a lot easier now than they were a year ago. as the hosts of the hilarious One Bad Mother podcast are wont to say: "we're getting really good at this!" it's partially just that the girls are another year older, both physically capable of doing more and mentally much more likely to want to do it. Greta remarkably walked the entire mile to the train station herself (!), stopping to pull out her fan at one point and announcing, "i sure am glad i remembered to bring this!" i've discovered that the girls are much happier on these trips if i let them each pack a small bag with whichever toys they choose. (um, duh!) the "stress" of having to keep track of two extra bags is far outweighed by their attitudes when they feel that they have some control over what's going on. and Greta especially is old enough to hold on to her own stuff and make sure she doesn't lose it.

have fan, will travel
the train to Termini brought us back to the reality of public transport in Rome. it was packed to the gills and we barely squeezed on, standing for the whole ride in the center part of the car because all the seats were taken. poor Cece had beads of sweat across the bridge of her nose and there was general chaos when we pulled into each station on the way to Termini as people were trying to get off and board when there was physically not any room to do so. but somehow we made it Termini in one piece and actually had our choice of seats on the train to Ciampino, where i pulled out sandwiches and fruit and felt once again like a seasoned budget traveler.

then we arrived in Ciampino and i was relieved to see printed signs with an arrow directing us out of the train station to where i assumed the bus would be waiting. sure enough, there was a whole fleet of coach buses parked in front of the station. we were walking around trying to see if any of them were displaying the route we needed, when i spotted a Trenitalia employee giving directions to a group of people. i showed her our tickets and she motioned for us to join the group. then she set off walking, out of the parking lot, through the city, around the corner, before leading us to another coach bus that was parked on the side of the road. so random! i don't know what would have happened if i didn't ask her about our tickets. she wasn't carrying any sort of sign and i certainly wouldn't have imagined that our bus would be so far away from the station. but once again, St. Raphael was looking out for us!

there were probably thirty of us, each as mystified as the others as we followed the employee
in the red vest on an unexpected walking tour of the city
anyway, the bus was actually very nice and the girls were fine for the 45-minute ride, just playing with their toys. as we pulled into the town of Castel Gandolfo, i was intrigued by this coffee and pastry shop we passed called "Manhattan". we disembarked on the side of the main road in the town (again, not at a bus stop or any sort of station) and caught our first glimpse of Lake Albano!

it's always tea-time somewhere! 

we were only about a quarter of a mile from the old town where the Apostolic Palace is, so we set off walking. by this point Greta had exhausted her quota of walking for the time being, so Nick pushed her in the stroller up a short but very steep hill. i guess i should qualify my previous statement about travel being easier now: they're both able to walk a lot more than they did before, but when they tucker out and we resort back to the stroller and the Ergo to drag them along with us, it's a bit more of a workout for us! 

proof that we're on the right road

hard to see from this angle but this hill was no joke, especially when hauling a 36-pound nugget! 
and, lest i paint too rosy a picture, by the time we made it up to the entrance of the Apostolic Palace, Greta was whining about being hungry and wanting gelato, refusing to get out of the stroller, and not wanting to go anywhere or see anything. so, you know. we powered through, gnashing of teeth notwithstanding. sorry, kid, you're going to see a whole fleet of Popemobiles whether you like it or not!

view from the top of the hill. i guess it was worth the climb...

entrance to the Apostolic Palace

Pope Benedict XVI's feelings about Castel Gandolfo: "Here I find everything: mountains, lake, and I
even see the sea ... and good people."

the most Roman QR code i've ever seen

thankfully, Greta perked right up when we got our audioguides and were able to walk around the central courtyard of the Apostolic Palace to check out the car collection. (there's also a whole separate building in the Vatican Museums dedicated to Popemobiles, including the one Pope St. John Paul II was riding in when he was shot in an assassination attempt.)

we joined a walking tour through the pontifical gardens, which were slightly underwhelming after the glories of Villa d'Este in Tivoli. Nick and i were both like, "we hate to be those people ... but these gardens aren't really that spectacular ..." i mean, it was pretty and all, but if you plan to see both gardens, definitely save Villa d'Este for last.

golf carts with Vatican City State license plates! 

the girls had a few minutes to play on the golf cart before the tour officially began

there were all kinds of little grottoes with ancient Roman artifacts
okay, this was beautiful!

Greta just wanted to go back and forth across these stepping stones

the most interesting part of the garden is the ancient Roman villa built by Emperor Domitian. you can still see the detail of the stucco of the ceiling. one of the staff members was teasing the girls and telling them that there was a lion inside the villa. Cecilia believed it at once and wanted to go see the lion (no fear!), and Greta just rolled her eyes. classic!

the wall of Emperor Domitian's villa

this pot has Pope Benedict XVI's papal crest on it


we were able to look up into the interior of the villa as well. according to the guide, somewhere at the end of this massive hallway was a sleeping lion...

detail of the stucco-work
we were nearing the end of the tour, and the girls were begging for snacks. i'm telling you, this is the secret to traveling with kids: bribes and snacks. (the bribe today was simple but effective: gelato!)

this tree kind of looked like a giant rhododendron -- but it can't possibly be one. right?

the tour concluded at one of the external gates, so we walked back through the little town to return to the entrance of the Apostolic Palace. it is such a cute little place! 

the papal crest of the Barberini family -- see the bees?

window with a view...

Nick spotted this at the same time i did and correctly guessed i needed to take a picture "for the 'gram"
the interior of the Apostolic Palace has now been turned into a museum. Nick made the genius move of asking for four audioguides, so the girls could each have their own. Greta took great delight in finding the numbers on the signs and keying in the corresponding numbers on the guide. 

fanciest switchplates ever

portrait of Pope Clement VII de Medici, who was pope during the politically precarious period
 from 1523-1534 and forced to seek refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo during the Sack of Rome.
he personally approved Copernicus' theory of the earth revolving around the sun. 

portrait of Pope Sixtus V, who embarked on numerous ambitious building projects during his pontificate,
including the completion of the dome of St. Peter's and the installation of the obelisk in
St. Peter's Square. 

Greta was beyond thrilled to discover the papal chair of Pope Pius IX, who founded the NAC and also her school!

then we entered the inevitable phase of museum-visiting during which Greta insists on taking her own pictures with my phone. she likes to pose her subjects just so...

a portrait of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono) himself
...and an epic portrait of Pope Benedict XVI

as we were walking up to the second floor of the museum, Greta said, "Let's pretend
I'm a princess and you're the queen, and this is our castle." sure, kiddo, i'll play!
the second floor contains the papal apartments

i'm slightly obsessed with this wallpaper

hard to beat the view!

the "waiting room"

reception room

private chapel

looking out over the grounds

what, your doors aren't covered in wallpaper?

we are pretty sure this desk was used by Pope Benedict XVI. it's no longer in use, but check out the next picture...

a Bavarian flag at the side table!

photographs from when the Pontifical Villas and Apostolic Palace were opened to refugees from the Holocaust. 

the papal bedroom

gorgeous altar!

Greta said, "THIS is the most beautiful of all!"

we swept through the last few rooms with the staff behind us, ready to close the doors (even though the museum technically didn't close for another ten minutes). even so, i insisted that the girls use the bathroom before we left -- you never pass up the opportunity to use a clean, free museum bathroom in Italy! then it was time to make good on our promise for gelato. Cece opted for her old standby, fragola (strawberry), and Greta asked for a combination of fragola and Oreo. 

finally, it was time to head back down the hill to catch the bus back to the train station. we grabbed porchetta sandwiches at a tiny restaurant across the road (the lady threw in a few free cookies for the girls!) and then joined a growing crowd of people who were also waiting for the bus. since this is just a temporary service to replace the local train, there is no specific bus stop or any type of signage to indicate exactly where the bus is supposed to stop. there must have been twenty of us, of varying nationalities, all waiting and hoping that we were roughly in the right place. as the minutes ticked on past the time the bus was due to arrive, i started racking my brain trying to think of a Plan B that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. thankfully, about seven minutes after it was scheduled to depart, the bus screeched up and we all piled aboard. my next worry was if we'd be able to make our train in Ciampino since we were leaving late, but thankfully, the bus driver made up the time. i've recently discovered the Trainline app, which makes train travel so much less stressful because you can pull up real-time updates on each train and see which platform you're arriving or departing from, so you have a better chance of pulling off a tight connection without having to search around for a departures board. so we made it all the way back to "our own little house", as Cece calls it, without incident!