Friday, February 28, 2014

February 16

We bundled up for the dark, cold, and stormy night, to climb a muddy mountain in the pouring rain, to spend several hours on our feet getting drenched.  Why on earth?  

February 16 is a huge big deal in this part of Italy: after almost a millenium of persecution, Religious Freedom was signed into law this night in 1848, granting the Waldensians civil (not religious) freedom (a nuance that escapes me).  News traveled fast up the valley--by bonfire, ending in Bobbio.  Since that night, people make a torchlight pilgrimage up the mountain to commemorate their ancestors’ endurance and final victory.  

Now the bonfires start in Bobbio and go down the valley.  And neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail can stop Bobbio.  “How can we not remember” was a comment I heard over and over.  

The topic of conversation in the town square as everyone gathered—a colorful sea of umbrellas—centered around the hardships of the Waldensian forebears, while we had the good fortune of warm homes to return to, proper clothing, and umbrellas.  What did we have to complain about?  

More folks turned out than I ever would have imagined--from the elderly Emma to the toddlers in strollers--everyone chatting cheerfully as Pastor Grigorio arrived with the torches.  They were quickly distributed, lit and dutifully photographed.  And then the procession began.

I had the delight of discovering Silvano, Jane and her daughter in the crowd.  We trudged up the mountain together, the stories flowing as steadily as the rain; I learned more details of the valley, its history, and Jane herself. 

We arrived at the bonfire in time to see the first torch carried up a ladder to the top, and soon the soggy mess gave way to a hot blaze,  sparks flying up into the night.  Below us, we watched other bonfires blazing into life, one by one.  Behind us, an adult choir sang traditional Waldensian hymns.

Mulled wine and hot chocolate followed, after a welcome in several languages by Pastor Grigorio (we marveled at his nod to our international community).  Jane and I elbowed our way through the soggy crowd to get our warm drinks, thoroughly soaked but happy in the muddy magic and the memory.  

The evening came to its end all too quickly, and we descended in the pawta (mud) and dark, contemplating the bonfire that starts in Bobbio and travels down the valley.  What fire could we start or be part of as well?   Part of our acceptance in the community has been our solidarity with the present-day Waldensians, who are not particularly religious, but deeply committed to their roots and one another.  Our two communities have intersected one another--to what purpose?  The Waldensians are as curious about us as we are about them.  Time--and lots of conversation in the coffee bars and trattoria--will tell.

In the meantime, time to get out of the soggy clothes and into bed.  Our next week of school is about to begin. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

One Week Down, Eleven to Go!

Our first week was a like a luge ride down the Pellice Valley, and into the lives of our 10 students and the OM Italy staff.  We landed with all luggage (only one slightly damaged) one hour ahead of schedule, which gave us time to get ourselves sorted out in one coherent pile, the luggage casualty rectified, with cameras clicking away.  Our drivers arrived as scheduled, and we easily talked them into a roadside coffee stop.  

The drive up the valley was dreary--not the winter wonderland of my last entrance into the province.  A rainy day, with little snow in sight, lulled us all to sleep or a jet lag stupor.  A safer drive perhaps, but uninspiring--perhaps my first lesson of the Pellice.  

The 3-hr. ride up the valley filled increasingly with memories as we approached Bobbio: Luserna, with its chocolate factory, Torre Pellice, where we had spent time in coffee shops, pizzerias, at the market, and where most of the OM Italy team lives.  Villar Pellice, the tiny land of in between, with its great exiting switchback that gave us our first glimpse of Bobbio.  I noted the new sign at the turn to Forterocca, and we pulled into a joyous welcome by those we hadn't seen in two years.  It was good to be 'home.'  

We awoke from our first night's sleep to the winter wonderland we missed on arrival--snow everywhere, swirling non-stop for a full day!  The photographer's delight--the shutterbugs were out for hours.  I'm delighted to have Fritz Liedtke, a professional photographer, and his family with us.  I'm learning lots from Fritz already.

First days were spent scrambling to set up office space, teaching rooms, a chapel, music and art studios and housekeeping, everything taking twice as long as normal because of jet lag.  A couple of all-day meetings, grueling as they were, finalized our orientation schedule, and brought our Italian teammates up to speed.  But we did not neglect the daily walks out and about in the village--two of us reconnecting with the dear ones we had connected with last time.  

Jane, who with her husband Robbie run the local trattoria, had tears in her eyes as we walked in for Sunday dinner.  She proceeded to serve up one of her incredible meals, soup to nuts--or rather, breadsticks to vegan orange/hazelnut homemade cake.  Oh my...the food revolution has even reached Bobbio Pellice.  As our group returned home, Mat and I lingered to chat with her, catching up on news and hugs.   

Next stop: Cafe Fontana, where Silvano moved wordlessly across the cafe to crunch me in a big bear hug as I entered, Bill and Teri Drake in tow.  We ordered up his signature hot chocolate, the one where the spoon stands up straight, and chatted about life in the past two years.  He told us how slow business was, the exodus of the young from the village, the dwindling population.  It would be sad to think of Silvano losing his business.  We promised to do our best to shore up sales! 

And in the midst of all this, our students began or two at a time, jetlagged and excited, and the energy levels rose.  The Italian kitchen crew work seemingly non-stop to keep us more than fed, indulging vegetarian, vegan, and "Gluteen-free" options.  God bless 'em.  

Orientation began Wednesday, and has begun to crack us open, each to the other, and set the stage for "Living Together Beautifully," as we embark on living together in cross-cultural closeness for the next 90 days.  We've taken the students on several Waldensian history tours, to set the spiritual/historical context of the school, and invited in Pastor Gregorio of the Bobbio church to talk to us about the current state of the Waldensian church.  

In less than an hour,  an open house begins; we've been setting up, and I'm loving seeing the artwork from our first school emerge from the nooks and crannies of the building, and/or homes of those who bought the pieces two years ago.  

We've  invited the community in to meet us again, or for the first time, and enjoy performances and artwork.  A saxophonist is rehearsing next door.  Three have gone to Silvano's for coffee.  One leader is preparing her comments, another is hanging artwork still.  We have no idea if 5, 50, or all 500 of Bobbio's inhabitants will turn out, but we expect a crowd.  

Gotta go!  



Friday, February 7, 2014

Dispatch from the Sky Lounge

After a grueling 36 hours, Life is Beautiful!

Last minute buddy passes, a 4:00 am wake up call for a 5:00 departure, discovering that, since my luggage was at the office, scheduled for a 9:00 am pick up, I couldn’t get it before 6 am without triggering the security alarm.  Oy. 

The only possible solution was to eat breakfast.  I pulled out some blueberry almond muffins and bananas.  Arwen, my driver, and I then attempted conversation--which ranged from rambles into family history, Janis Joplin and transgender surgeries.  Such is the stuff of 4 am socializing.  

6:00 am finally arrived; we collected my luggage and were off, an hour late for departure.  But hey--I had my brand-spanking new Globaly Entry Pass, right?  That should shave some time off.

No need to worry.  On arrival, the ticket gatekeeper advised me to take a later flight to NYC--in the grip of yet another snow/ice event.  I could then fly directly into JFK rather than have to transfer from LaGuardia.  Va bene.  

A change of terminals and the extra hour allowed time for second breakfast.  And then arriving in a frosty NY, hours ahead of the second flight, I had the luxury of plopping into an island of calm in an empty gate, sketching travelers, trying to keep busy, awake, and alert in the several-hour wait for my 5 other traveling companions. 

And then the reunion came, happily in the Sky Lounge, courtesy of our fearless leader Bill.  Our invasion was comprehensive: luggage, djembe, saxophone, guitar, carry-ons and cameras, drawing stares and a “Are you guys a band?” questions. 

We helped ourselves to designer nibbles, admired the views: the NY skyline, the icy waters surrounding Manhattan, and the Emirates double decker airbus, largest in the world, for which wider air strips must be built. 

For our artistic pleasure, some fantastic photography by Bard College students was on display.  Conversation now ranged from  ‘emplotment’ and ‘poetic awe,’ to wondering if those of us flying standby would get on First Class.  Phone chat with Bro Pete, a group photo, and social medializing filled our final hour before take-off, as we texted, emailed, or FB-ed final farewells to our families and friends in the free Wi-Fi zone. 

And then the walk to the gate, checking in to make sure we were indeed ‘pretty much guaranteed’ to get the First Class seating.  YES!!!  The 36-hr gauntlet run paid off.

Jessa and I are now comfortably ensconced under our goose down comforters, Campari in hand, munching Glazed Almonds with cranberries, honey and sea salt--living large after the Great Schlepp. 

Dinner begins with a glazed shrimp and roasted pineapple appetizer.  If only I had worn the fur coat given me, the irony would be complete. 

So it begins.  The dark side of travel, literally and figuratively, giving way to the light.  How very metaphorical for what we hope to experience in Italy.  Moving into a spiritually dark place, and striking some matches.  

Italy arrives in 6 hours;  Bobbio Pellice after a 3-hr. van ride.  I pull on the headphones, punch in the Paul Simon Retrospective, and raise the footrest.  Time to get me some rest. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


First stop: New York City, ice storm permitting, tomorrow morning. 

Next: Malpensa Airport, Milan, Italy, for a van pick up to transport me and my team up the Pellice Valley, via Turin and Pinerolo.

Destination: the end of the road: Bobbio Pellice, 8 km. from the French border, which became my home away from home two years ago, as some of you will remember.

The Project: Incarnate 2014.  With 6 of our staff joining several staff on the ground, and 10 artists from 8 nations arriving within days, we will begin 3 months together--pursuing creativity, community, and Christ.  We'll be immersed in local culture, sipping our espressos at the foot of the Italian Alps, waking with the roosters.  And if that farmer across the street is still interested in giving us cheese-making lessons, he's on!

We'll be engaging with local artists, partnering with nearby churches, and exploring the area’s rich Waldensian history (the Pellice Valley is home to the Waldensians; you can read that thread by beginning here).  We will also take a week to explore the art and culture of Florence and its surroundings.

The luggage palooza is over, the visas procured, the funds....being procured still...and the myriad of details finalizing for my team of 6 to move over to Italy for 3 months.  As we closed this phase of the project, we celebrated with coffee and churros, and separated with a "see you in the morning."  We would rendez-vous at 9 am tomorrow to catch our flight.

And then things went sideways: the Delta pilot who had given me the buddy pass called with good news/bad news.  The good news was I would get on the flight to Milan, leaving from NY.  The bad news: I wouldn't get on the NY leg of the journey; the flight was oversold.  I'd have to change flights.  Dang. Gotta love stand by.

Thus began a manic phone marathon, concluding with: changing airports to catch a 7:45 am flight to LaGuardia, transfer to JFK, and meet up with everyone later in the day.  Then on to Milan--first class!  If nothing else goes sideways...

Okey dokey...

Baggage reclaimed from the team pile, driver bribed into getting up for a 5:00 am departure, final belongings stuffed into two carry-ons, dodging New York ice storms, Global Entry and buddy passes firmly in hand, I am off for four months in Europe.  

Glamorous as that sounds, sometimes it takes nerves of steel...