34. Drive-Thru Culture

Have you ever been a guide to a foreign person in your own home? I highly suggest that you try it. You’ll inevitably discover new things that have hiding in plain sight for your whole life.   Through a pair of foreign eyes, things that have always seemed like banal, background elements to your existence suddenly force themselves to be revisited.  Things like the shape of a stop light, or how shopping karts feel different when you steer them suddenly demand further examination.  I once witnessed a squirrel while in an American park in the company of a European person.  At the sight of the common urban rodent, there were shrieks of bewildered excitement as if a primeval subconscious had been awakened in the presence of what was perceived to be raw nature.  I found myself confused, wondering whether I’d missed something. Despite claiming that seeing squirrels was quite common, my friend wildly snapped photos, fearing the end of such a rare encounter.  I found myself questioning my understanding of squirrels and nature via a voice in my head that had taken on that of Sir David Attenborough.  

During our first visit to the United States together, my wife who is Italian, and I managed to experience an impressive number of iconic American things.  We stood on the Golden Gate Bridge, we ate chicken and waffles at 2:00 am in Oakland, and we camped under the stars as we made our way through Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Colorado.  Those have indeed remained special memories, each in their own ways, but it’s the smaller things that fascinated my wife and made me reevaluate so many of the experiences that I’d taken for granted or just never noticed growing up in America.  I would have never thought that spending a night in a cheap motel would end up being the impetus for cultural discovery.  Marianna examined every aspect of the room like a detective, saying things like “Look at this sink!  Why is it like this?”  Or “What kind of sheets are these?”.  To her disappointment, I had no satisfactory answers for her questions.  

My wife is still fascinated by seemingly random American things.  To this day, even after having visited the US and my family in Denver multiple times, she still finds herself compelled to do things like schedule long visits Walgreens.  She walks down the aisles as if it were museum, reading labels and taking mental notes.  For her, it’s like going on a cultural safari citing that she just never gets to see the kinds of products or clientele that Walgreens regularly provides.  It’s true.  Walgreens, for better or for worse, is a window into contemporary American cultural reality on par with the Smithsonian.  


Back in Italy, on a rather mundane Sunday during Season 3 of the Global Pandemic we were driving through the outskirts of Bologna. Heading to my wife’s sister’s house and Marianna, out of the blue, noted:

“You know what I’ve never done?  I’ve never got food via the drive-thru window and then eaten the food in the car.” 

There was a particular emphasis on ‘eating in the car’ as if it was scandalous thing even to mention out loud.  Italians don’t eat in the car.  Marianna’s father, who is moderate and progressive compared to the majority of Italian traditionalists, always forbade eating in the car to his children growing up.  Food is sacred in Italy and the consumption of it must reflect the appropriate amount of respect and reverence.  I sensed an aire of rebelliousness in my wife’s voice as she imagined what it would be like to consummate a family meal within the confines of our vehicle.  I, having consumed a considerably large amount of meals in cars during my existence as an American from Denver, found it hard to share the same excitement for her anarchistic plan.  I also couldn’t believe that I had overlooked such a blaringly American experience on our many trips to the US.  Eating fast food in the parking lot at a drive-thru hadn’t come to mind when I was thinking of emblematic experiences through which to share my native culture. It is what it is though. Like Walgreens, what exists will be noticed sooner or later.

So, with mischievous determination, Marianna insisted that we, as a family acquire a meal from Burger King and eat it in the adjacent parking lot.  I was worried that her initial excitement may lead expectations that wouldn’t live up to the actual experience.  I tried my best to explain that nothing really happens other than parking, eating, and leaving. However, there was no point in resistance.   Marianna also doesn’t share my reluctance to indulge in fast food.  For her it’s a harmless novelty that’s fine every now and then. I, on the other hand, grew up too close to America’s raging junk-food fire and don’t really feel comfortable with industrial fast food anymore.  Having moved to Italy, I acquired a greater vision of how to perceive food and how it can be shared and consumed.  I am now ever-conscious of my privileged, regular access to delicacies that are the envy of much of the world as well as simple, quality vegetables. I can walk down any street, in any direction and get locally produced, unpasteurized cheese that, for a number of backwards reasons, is illegal in the US. We actually possess two different qualities of olive oil in our kitchen and understand how and where each of them will improve certain dishes. The mere existence of fast food in Italy seems to me like a dangerous transgression.  I feel like I should be telling a survivor’s story, defending what remains of the storied, local products and centuries of painstaking development against the encroaching corporate machines that long-ago ruined America’s foodscape by forcing the lowest quality possible upon us in the name of profit.   Of course, Marianna wasn’t suggesting that we throw out our grade A quality olive oil or that we cease to shop at local markets.  She simply wanted to have an experience that she just realized had evaded her up until this point in life. 

Two chicken nuggets rest on the dashboard on a foggy night in Bologna, Italy.

So, there we found ourselves on a cold, foggy January evening, munching on whoppers and chicken nuggets as our windows steamed up.  Our seven-year-old son, who had no cultural references for this was mostly surprised at his fortune.  A burger and fries just like that? In the car, no less? Were these people still his parents?  He inhaled his Whopper Jr. with the speed of someone who understood the finite limit of time on whatever magic spell had enchanted the authorities.   Meanwhile, our two-year-old daughter delightedly spread half-eaten fries and bits of nuggets throughout the crevices between the seats.  Incredibly, no ketchup ended up on our clothing nor on the upholstery.

I was surprised at how surreal it felt to watch my family in Italy eat Burger King in the car with such elation.  To make things even stranger, Marianna inspired by the intercultural moment opened youtube on her phone and searched for the Pharcyde’s “Oh Shit!” I have tried time and again to get her to understand my love and appreciation for hip hop.  For the most part, my efforts have gone in vain with a few random exceptions, including her inexplicable and seemingly random love for the 90’s group, The Pharcyde.  As the completely inappropriate-for-kids song played, (our pandemic-influenced outlook on parenting is decidedly lax) I could not help but feel that I had detached from my reality and was elsewhere in the multiverse, in a blended experience of past and present.

I was astonished at the amount of nostalgia conjured by those greasy, steamy moments in the car.  To understand a culture is to see it from all sides and to explore even the smallest and most commonplace aspects of the overall experience.  A totally unexpected flood of burger fueled memories came over me.  I remembered opening McDonald’s happy meals with my Mom.  We ate our fries, both of our seat belts still on.  My mom, whose vegetable garden is famous throughout the neighborhood and was a member of food coops in the 1980’s understood that the occasional fast food meal in the car was an effective remedy for much of childhood’s difficulties.  I remembered my Dad taking advantage of the moments of pause in parking lots. In the time it took to finish off a value meal to he was able to wax on father-son discussions and monologues about life.  I remembered the infinite lunches and late nights, bonding with friends over music, girls, hopes and dreams as we sat five deep in our parents cars, reveling in the flavors of ketchup and budding, adolescent freedom.  

Eating fast food in a parking lot is certainly not the noblest of cultural experiences.  It is what it is.  Compared to the high-browed 5-course Italian meals with paired, local wines that can last for hours, Burger King drive through doesn’t even seem comparable.  Yet there is a link, and a strong one at that.  It’s the people.  Humans need to eat in order to continue to function.  But when we eat in the presence of other people, the act takes on a whole different purpose.  When we eat together, we’re relaxed.  We’re happy.  I love great food but I’m here to admit that I think that it’s the company is the most important part of any meal.

Fast food in a parking lot in all of its glory, immortalized forever.

33. For Dave

“The pain I feel now is the happiness that I had before.  That’s the deal” 

– C.S. Lewis

I must have been around 6 years old when I met my friend David.  The movie that in my mind of my first memories with him feels clear.  We sat on a bench outside in the schoolyard on a crisp, autumn afternoon in Denver, waiting for my mom to pick us up.  I was excited because my new friend was coming over to my house.  The golden afternoon light accentuated the orange stripes on David’s Chicago Bears jacket and matching winter hat.  His small frame was hidden inside the jacket that was about three sizes too large.  Those images of us on the bench are what my mind has held onto as a beginning. 

I don’t remember the exact moment that I met David.  Kids don’t meet each other like adults do.  There aren’t introductions so much as there are gravitations.  They can sense things about each other almost as if they’re using magical powers.  To children, magic might as well be real. Now as an adult, magic, and even more scientific terms like telepathy are restricted to fictional books and movies.   Still, it feels like there was some magic there on the bench as those two kids sat, waiting for the friendship that was to come.  

On the heels of that first image follows an avalanche of memories: Birthday hats, sleep-overs, and snowball fights.  Soccer games, summer camps, and an endless number of made-up sports.  Throwing rocks at stuff and falling off of things.  Swimming pools and dirt bikes.  Juice boxes, hot dogs, and facefuls of watermelon.  Adventures in dangerous places and safe places made dangerous.  Yelling and getting yelled at.  Basketball courts enhanced with trampolines, bruises, and bandaids.  Rollerblades, homemade ramps, and more blood.  Spoon-catapults and bits of pasta stuck to the ceiling, testaments of pure fun.   Laughing, laughing, and more laughing.  

Man, did we have fun.  We were two kids driven by silliness and laughter intent on maximizing  the enjoyment of life, especially all of its nonsense.  There are so many memories.  Some of the strongest ones come from shared experiences at a summer camp up in the mountains adjacent to Denver.  It was run by a visionary woman and educator who built an environment that bred creativity in its wildest, most natural forms.  Both David and I were fortunate enough to have grown up there, spending summers as young campers and then, later gaining our first hints of responsibility as counselors, in charge of other children.  As we got older, we found more sophisticated ways to be ridiculous and create fun for ourselves and everyone who surrounded us.  We tested limits, to see how far we could take the pure enjoyment of life.  We crossed a few lines along the way.  More pictures flow through my mind of those times.  We orchestrated epic water fights and challenged each other to see who could make the children around us laugh more.  There were endless basketball games on un an improvised court in the forest, the rim and backboard nailed to a tree.   Once, we thought it would be hilarious to paint lightning bolts on a pony.  We were right.  It was absolutely hilarious.

I was a year older than David.  After third grade, we went to different schools.  We had our own groups of friends. As a parent now I can see how our own parents coaxed our friendship and provided support by creating the space and time for us to experience and grow together.  Despite any length of time apart that may have passed, every single time that our paths crossed, that electric sense of fun was never far off.  We always found new things to bond over and laugh about.  It was as if, almost telepathically, we always knew how to pick up the beat of our friendship at any moment. 

David became Dave and I grew out of Michael into Mike.  We each discovered tons of our own, different passions.  Eventually, our lives reached the moments where we both said goodbye to Denver. By the time that we began creating our own families Dave’s spectacular trajectory had already included an academic scholarship to a top school in the east coast followed by a career as a professional athlete.  More recently, he was evolving into a coach, inspiring more young people.  My own path led me far, far away to a life abroad.  As adults we didn’t get to see each other much as is the case for many friendships of youth.  The last time I saw Dave, I was visiting my parents in Denver over the holidays with my wife and son (my daughter, yet to be born).  He was also in town and made the effort to stop by for a brief visit.  I could see that he and his wife had their hands full with two boys (their daughter, also yet to be born).  We did our best to catch up in the few moments that we had but our attention was mostly on our sons and trying to get them to play together.  It went unsaid, but I know that we were both thinking about the potential fun that these kids could have together and how to make it happen. 

My stories with Dave are ones that I’ll hold onto for as long as I live.  My story with Dave is an amazing one.  But there’s something that’s far more amazing about Dave.  It’s something that I cannot explain.  If you ask any one of the thousands (yes, thousands) of people who considered Dave to be a friend, their story, especially the connection they felt with him, will sound a lot like mine.  Dave had a superhuman capacity to connect with people.  The way that he made every friend feel like they were his best friend was other-worldly.  Thinking about him now I can’t help but wonder.  Maybe, as a 6-year-old on that cool, autumn day in 1986, I still knew about magic and I recognized it as it sat next to me, wrapped in a Chicago Bears jacket.

32. Where We Pretend That It’s All Awesome

Yesterday I went to Linkedin.   I really hate Linkedin.  No other online experience makes me feel more inadequate and unsuccessful as a few minutes perusing the apparently limitless success and achievement that everyone else is living on Linkedin.  My hatred is only empowered by the realization these are the exact feelings of self-doubt that make the platform successful.  Anyway, there I was in my email and I read a message of hope cleverly manufactured by Linkedin itself.    I read an email that enthusiastically pointed out that other humans had looked at my profile.  I took the bait.  A dark place in my subconscious that all social media magically has access to longed to see who indeed thought that my profile was worthy of their time.  

It is probably no surprise that I do not pay for my account. As a non-payer I must wade through the purgatory of almost-useful information laid before me like a menu at Arby’s.  There is information, but just like the food at Arby’s, it’s not really what I want.  The differences between linkiedin and Arby’s are many, but one of them is that Linkedin dangles the promise of a heaven beyond this purgatory and all you need to do is to give them money.  Arby’s on the other hand seems firmly committed to mediocrity and does not operate under the rules of capitalism.   If you don’t know what Arby’s is, it’s a fast food chain in the US that is so unpopular that the only reasonable explanation for it’s existence is that it is a front for the Illuminati to funnel secret funding to the sand people that traveled to our planet in the 1970’s and are currently creating tunnels and colonizing the Earth’s mantle.  

Just before I came to the familiar realization that I was duped once again, I noticed a clue about someone who viewed my profile.  The clue had been thrown to me over the paywall and it was that a visitor to my page “worked at a *cooperativa”.  In italy, a cooperativa is a business managed by the people who work there.  Aha!   I know who that is!  I win the day!  Despite digitally withholding the name of this “cooperativa worker”, I was able to perform some linking of my own in my brain.  I recalled recently sending my resumè to a cooperativa in Bologna that was looking for potential collaborators.   Solving this first clue, my inner detective, once again subconsciously guided by algorithms, led me to the realization that the person who read my resumè, then browsed their way over to my linkedin profile.  I then realized that my profile, was indeed out of date.  Woe is me, my profile has been hemorrhaging a falsity about my professional life for months now.  My employer has a new name.  Our study abroad program, in an attempt to be proactive took the extra time “gifted” to us by the pandemic to re-brand in order to better represent what we do.  We thought up a new name, made a new website, and even updated all of our social media accounts.  Despite holding the honorable and high responsibility of being an admin of our Linkedin page, I had failed to update my employer and position on my own Linkedin page.  

I pondered the impact that my error may have had on my current state and came to the conclusion that my life had not been further derailed by my errant dissemination of misinformation, but that it would probably be a positive thing to rectify the situation.  A few quick ctrl+c’s and ctrl+v’s later, my profile was updated.

Linkedin recognized the magnitude of this new information and immediately shared the update with the world of my connections.  Since I don’t pay, the world outside of my connections doesn’t know that indeed a wrong has been made right. There’s nothing wrong with sharing an update I suppose, but the story that Linkedin tells is not a truthful story and that is where I take serious issue.  Minutes after I updated things I began to receive congratulatory messages, as if I had actually achieved something.  Linkedin made it look like I had been promoted.  My own father, who I did not know was actually on Linkedin, congratulated me for my achievement.  This got me wondering a few things. The first was, what in the hell was my father, a retired doctor who is currently (and admirably) pursuing his lifelong dream of being a cowboy, doing on Linkedin?  Is that where cowboys congratulate each other for videos that they post of themselves flawlessly roping cows?   The second thing that was highlighted by the flood of “likes” and congrats was just how false this whole thing is.  Thanks Dad, and to all of you for your congratulations, but I didn’t do anything.  I don’t want to sound self defeatist, but I don’t deserve your laudations in this case.  I just changed some wording and Linkedin took the liberty to tell everyone that I started a new job and that I was moving up the metaphorical ladder of success.  It’s not true.  Sure, I’m doing my best to move in a forward direction, but no specific achievement was made yesterday.  

Linkedin steers us in a direction of believing that everything out there is fantastic and that everyone is just totally crushing it.  Then, naturally we wonder whether we’re crushing it enough or whether we could crush even more.  I don’t think that I am alone in experiencing doubt when I open up all of those important notifications.  I see all of you out there living your best lives and wonder if I am indeed doing my best.  I see  a bunch of things in my life that don’t line up with the imaginary narratives of success that Linkedin whispers to me.   Hell, compared to some of your profiles and the shit that you’re sharing, my actual reality looks like a fucking dumpster fire now that I really think about it.  

I recently moved to Bologna from Siena, the result of a pre-pandemic, family based decision.   Predictably it has not been the smoothest-of-transitions amid the actual pandemic.  While I am still working for the study abroad program of which I am a co-founder, I have been forced to look for new ways to support myself.  My wife currently holds the burden of supporting our family and pays the rent while I find myself either on the couch ranting about Linkedin or planning English lessons for children that provide almost enough for me to be able to buy groceries once a week.  The field of study abroad is not among those fields that have increased their earnings by the billions in recent months.  

I’m doing my best to hold on to the hope that there will be a future in which I will once again be able to make achievements worth sharing.  I know that a lot your realities are not easy right now.  I’m sorry, but I can tell that not all of you are not actually crushing it 24/7 despite your apparent online enthusiasm.  So, if you happened upon the message fed to you by Linkedin that I am out here making significant professional moves, know that I’m struggling too.  If the story that Linkedin made up about me made you feel like your life is slightly inferior, then please, please don’t worry, it’s not.  You’re probably experiencing just as much good and bad as me and everyone else right now.  If things aren’t great right now, that’s pretty understandable.  It’s ok, and don’t let the algorithms make you think anything else. 

31. Grazie Siena

English / Italiano

I didn’t envision opening up my next chapter like this.  I knew change was coming my way, but I couldn’t imagine the current scenario.   I’ve known for nearly a year that I would be leaving Siena to move two hours to the north to the city of Bologna.   I will be taking a step away from so many things that I had a hand in creating, yet I can’t bring myself to leave it all behind me.  I will still be connected and working with SIS in Siena, but in a different, new way.  Just when I started to become comfortable with telling friends and colleagues about the coming change, we all got locked away inside of our houses.  The complex plans that had been previously clear in my mind blurred into something that I still can’t quite put into focus.  

Nevertheless, here we go.  To be frank, I’ve known that uprooting from Siena was a likely outcome of marrying Marianna Bolognesi.  She’s fearlessly ambitious.  She also understands the importance of my efforts and contributions to SIS and to Siena.  Research opportunities for Marianna in Amsterdam and Oxford came and went over the past 5 years and yet Siena still remained the city in which we set our anchor.  In June 2019, Marianna was offered the position of Associate Professor in Linguistics at the University of Bologna.  This kind of opportunity in the current Italian job market is an endangered species.  Her CV is certainly strong enough, but there are so many strong candidates in Italy today that are forced to settle for temporary work or to leave Italy in order to pursue their ambitions.   A secure job at the University of Bologna is not something that neither Marianna nor myself could turn down right now.  We’ve both made so many sacrifices.  We both spent significant time living alone with our son.  Our driving hope was that our sacrifices would make way for opportunities. This is the opportunity.  

I’ve enjoyed a unique experience in Siena.  Siena is not one of Europe’s intercultural hotspots, and could be considered an unlikely place to have dedicated more than a decade creating intercultural exchange and experience for thousands of young people.   Nonetheless, that’s what I did with a wonderful group of like-minded individuals.   I am fully aware of how difficult it can be to assimilate into Siena’s local culture as an outsider.   While I have experienced some prejudice and exclusion due to being a foreigner for the most part I found it easy to move among the proud Sienese.  I have to acknowledge the fact that I start off at an advantage as a white, American male.  Even with this advantage, Siena’s social fabric is difficult to permeate.  Maybe it’s the difficulty itself that piqued my interest.  I have always been fascinated with the local culture that many perceive as fanatically devoted to the past.  I make a concerted effort to make sure that that passionate interest is open and on display.  Learning to speak like a local and showing a general interest in understanding local life has worked like a trojan horse, letting me pass through walls.  Whether people liked them or not, I brought my inherently foreign ideas with me.  My goals were never imperialistic, but rather to simply be as participant as possible in society in my own, personal way.  I searched and found common interests and uncovered spaces where my own American-acquired abilities could be put to use for everything from local development to my own entertainment.  

I found myself in situations very few outsiders have experienced.  Looking back at the things I was able to do, sometimes it doesn’t seem real.  As a kid, growing up in Denver, Colorado I never envisioned living in Siena, Italy.  I could not have even conceived of Siena as a place back then.  Yet, I found myself standing on the sidelines of a Serie A soccer field, translating for an elite player.  I forged bonds with friends for more than 15 years on the common grounds of local basketball courts, which seems ironic as I wasn’t a great basketball player growing up in the US.  I got better at the game in Siena.  Together with locals and other brilliant people I created a school, a few volunteer organizations and countless projects where people from different backgrounds work together to improve local life, even in the smallest of ways.  I have been lucky enough to experience ancient institutions and rituals from the inside.  I may have been the only American to have ever participated in the eternal rituals of the Palio by dressing in the traditional clothing, representing the city of Siena in the historic procession preceding the Palio.  My own son is also a son of Siena, baptized in the most Sienese way among the people of one of the 17 extended families.

It’s all been fascinating but walking this path, ever farther away from what could be called familiar can feel lonely at times.  At this point I don’t have a shared base of cultural common experiences with anyone.  I have an assortment of so many different cultural experiences that, put together, make a unique cultural fabric that I adorn, making me visibly different from so many around me.   When you’re different, everyone seems more eager to offer opinions on your situation.  I have heard everything from “Someone like you shouldn’t have wasted so much time in a little, provincial town like Siena” to “The only way to truly understand this place is to have been born here.”   I disagree with both of those opinions.  My ever-complicated being doesn’t make me sad, but I’ll admit that it does force more internalization of feelings than I would prefer.   

At this point, adding more and more dimensions and hues to life’s pattern seems to be the only natural form of progression.  I have been ready to take this next step now for a while but the uncertainly of all of our futures brought on by a global pandemic has added an extra layer or two of anxiety to the way that I look towards the coming change.  I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Siena and SIS, so I had figured out a way to step away, without totally separating.  Now the moment has arrived to step away, but I can no longer be sure whether to say “see you later” or “goodbye”.  

Professionally, I have spent a long time helping people adapt to new ways of life.  Now I get to use everything that I’ve learned to do some adapting of my own as I look to discover more new things.  I hope that I’ll be in Siena frequently, working with the small, independent and rebellious study abroad program SIS.  Thank you to each an every one of you who have been a part of my unique experience.

30. Image is Everything

Photo credit: Alyson McClaran Denver, CO

Dear lady in the expensive car, yelling at the nurse who is blocking her way,

Image is everything in this day and age.  This picture, and many more captured during this insane moment in Denver, Colorado are out there for the whole world to see.  Literally.  I live in Italy, although I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado.  Its where I’m from and I love it.  All the way over here in Italy I see you, screaming woman.  Do you understand what the image you chose to portray to the world says about you?  Let’s take a look.

I don’t know anything about you.  You could be a lawyer, a social worker, a crackhead, or anything else in our existing universe of humanity.   I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and not lay judgement on what I think may or may not make you a contributor to our greater, human society.  

You’re wearing a shirt that says USA on it as if it gives you a pass to express your rage.  The right to free speech does, in fact protect your voice.  Seatbelts are also a form of protection and as far as I know they are mandatory.  

As you lean out of the window of your needlessly overweight, you probably consider yourself a patriot.  I can’t really find an argument to support whether you are or aren’t a patriot, but who’s freedom are you actually screaming for from the comfort of your SUV?  It’s probably your own and not the nurse’s standing in front of your car.  Justice for all?  What about freedom from a virus that has beset the entirety of humanity?  Just how much of your freedom has been taken from you?   Judging by this picture I can surmise that you seem to be rather free, riding in your car, standing out the window and screaming insults at a person who’s entire job it is to help fellow humans. Your right to publicly spew callous, misdirected hatred seems to be fully intact here in this picture.  

Is it the government that you’re scared of or is it the virus?  Who’s taking your freedom, the government, or the virus?  Or is it that nurse?  What we see here is you, a woman raging on the streets as if she expects both the Governor of Colorado and coronavirus itself to sit idly, listen, and finally bow to her will.  Scientific evidence is currently in opposition to all of your actions on display, but we can all see that science is not what drives you.  

Your sign reads “Land of the Free”. I know that you did not come up with that slogan.  It’s part of the National Anthem.  I wonder, what do you think it means?  I wonder, how you define freedom?  Is there a limit to your freedom?  What about the freedom of the nurse in the picture?  Where does your freedom end and his begin?  These questions are difficult, and there are no right answers, but you require answers, especially the ones that you want to hear.  

You’re white.  That’s not your fault, but it is your privilege.  It’s not that shirt that’s the real pass. It’s your skin color that allows you to stand out of the window of your scream at the world.  The freedom you experience is not the same freedom that all Americans experience.  Another inference that I can make about you from your skin color is that your family is not originally American.  Your heritage is European and one day, long ago someone in your family ventured to the “Land of the free”.  More likely than not, they were insulted by people who felt entitled.  Sound familiar?

You’re not the only one suffering, and given what we can all see in the picture, your suffering is only relative to to what others are experiencing.  In fact, the degree of everyone’s suffering is always relative.  Do you understand what I just said in that last sentence?  

I have to admit something though. You and I probably have more in common that either of us would like to admit. Maybe you’re worried about your job?  Maybe you lost your job?  You need to scream.  So do I.  I’m worried about my job too.  You probably assume that since I moved to another country that I am a traitor and could never attain a level of patriotism like your own.  The reality is that I have dedicated a career’s work to creating educational experiences for Americans of all races, ages, and political beliefs here in Italy.  I do my best to uphold the integrity of my family, city, and nation abroad.   I am aware that if I go around screaming at everyone, I will be labeled as a belligerent American from Denver.   You and I, both from Denver. Both caught in a situation that neither of us saw coming nor wanted. I am forced to think about the image that I show the world.  This is now the image that the world has to judge you.  

Do you know that there’s video of this every scene in the picture?  Indeed there is, and we can all hear you tell the nurse in front of your car to “go back to China”.  Again, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know anything about you, but the video does even less than the picture to convince me that you’re a thoughtful human being.  

Do you want someone to listen to you?  Here’s a tip.  Think about the image that you portray. Good luck.

29. More Hops Thanks To Medieval Aqueducts

Growing hops isn’t like growing a summer vegetable garden.  When you grow a vegetable garden, you harvest all of your food before the earth starts tilting away from the sun and your plants all die.  I’ll admit that statement is a bit northern-hemisphere-centric.  To rephrase:  Where I live, the vegetable plants all die in the winter.  Hops though, only appear to die.  Their long, wiry tentacles turn brown and wilt as the temperatures cool, however underground, their roots act much more like a tree, laying dormant during the winter.  When spring comes around they shoot out new vines, more potent than the previous year’s while simultaneously expanding their root systems.  With vines that yearn to climb as high as they possibly can, covering anything and everything one could easily conceive of a horror movie featuring the hops plants slowly, photosynthetically encroaching on civilization.  Back in reality, a decent pair of gardening shears can put a quick end to more than 20-foot high vines with a quick clip at the base.

Students and local volunteers at work preparing the new site.

After last year’s success we decided to relocate the area dedicated to growing the hops destined for the brewery in an area that would allow for the expansion of an additional 15 to 20 plants.  In March of 2019, together with a mixed group of locals and some American students on the study abroad program that I work for, we prepared soil and planted about 20 new plants.  We also carefully transplanted last year’s plants to the new area.

Other than the amount of plants another major difference between this year and last year was rain.  I don’t think that I can call myself a farmer, but through this project I have gained new perspective with regards to weather and new respect for farmers and how much they depend on the rain.  Last year it rained a TON in the early summer months which is not that common for Tuscany, but it was great for the hops.  We also laid plenty of layers of mulch to keep the moisture down and there was plenty water for the hops to thrive. This year was much, much hotter and dryer.  The area where we have the plants is ideal as it sits at the bottom of a basin-like valley.  All of the water drains down, to where our plants are but doesn’t stagnate there (which would be bad news for our hops).  Again we had plenty of mulch piled on top of the roots, but I was worried that the plants would still need more water.  Remember that this is a volunteer project in its initial stages.  We don’t have a budget for an irrigation system, however there was a way to bring some water to the plants.

The Sienese built vast systems of underground aqueducts that span for kilometers underneath the city.  The first of these was finished around the year 1100.  These aqueducts tap into large deposits of rainwater that lie all around the countryside that surrounds Siena.  The medieval Sienese took the idea of making water go downhill and dug tunnels to link the deposits of rainwater to a handful of “fountains” that are more like artificial springs inside the city walls.  Needless to say, this was an extremely important development for the city during its early history.  Incredibly, these tunnels are still intact today and even more amazing is that the water flows, slowly but steadily into the fountains just as it did 900 years ago.

Buckets at sunset

La Fonte Di Follonica

One of these fountains is located about 120 meters from where we have our hops.  The water was there.  The problem was how to get it to the hops.  I had to go old school.  All summer I found myself hiking down to the bottom of the valley, filling up buckets of water from the medieval fountain, and hauling them over to the hops.  While it may sound romantic, believe me, after a few trips, the romanticism fades quickly.

After a long, hot summer, once again we had hops!  There were 9 of us on harvest day, all volunteers with the Associazione Le Mura.   With sweat pouring off of us (but not onto the hops!) we picked 2 kg of hops off of the vines.  I immediately drove the fresh hops to the brewery and left them in the able hands of Francesco, head brewer at the Birrificio Agricolo La Diana.  As I write this, the beer isn’t ready yet, but our contribution to the batch is almost three times what it was last year.  Together with the hops produced by Giacomo Gori on the nearby Monte Amiata, hopefully there will be more beer to go around for everyone.

Soon, it’s possible that La Diana will produce a beer using only the hops frown inside Siena’s ancient walls.  I’m pretty proud of this project and it’s an amazing feeling to witness an idea go from a thought in my mind to something that grows (literally and figuratively) into something that generates a positive impact for numerous organizations and the city where I live.



28. Hops In Wine Country

I’ve written before about my work volunteering with the “Le Mura” organization in a previous entry.  Here’s a brief summary of what we do for those who don’t feel like reading a whole entry from months ago:

  1. Siena’s medieval walls are falling apart.  We attempt to stave off the inevitable march of time by clearing away the ivy and other plants that threaten to end the wall’s 700-year run of existence.
  2. There are areas near and adjacent to the walls that are totally abandoned.  We don’t think that this is cool.  We do our best to clean them up and come up with creative and useful ways to use these spaces.

Point two there is the focal point for this entry.  There are 5 huge green areas within medieval city center of Siena (so, on the inside of the walls).  These were extremely important during medieval times.  The city needed farmland on the inside of the city in case one of their many enemies set siege to the city.  Siege is an approach to warfare where invading armies would surround the city they wished to conquer and wait, sometimes for months, until everyone on the inside had either starved to death, or was close enough to starvation that they surrendered.  Medieval times were not friendly times.

Back to the present.  The city of Siena deserves compliments where they are due and it is certainly laudable that these green areas have remained pristine oases for centuries.  Today, more than half of the total green space is used for parks, by community organizations, and for gardens.  However there are still significant amounts of space that are unused and in the worst cases, abandoned.

It was in one of the abandoned spaces more than a year ago where we were clearing out a path to reach the walls when I noticed hops plants poking up through the undergrowth.  As a super-amateur homebrewer of medium (and occasionally high) quality beer, I recognized the plant as identical to the plants that I had planted in my own garden a few years prior.  The more I looked, the more that I saw!  There is an entire valley inside to Siena’s walls that is teeming with wild hops.

Most wild hops in Tuscany taste like garlic.  Even the most pretentious of hipsters would admit that while garlic, though original, it is not a desired taste in a beer.  I suggested to other members of our organization that we ask permission from the city to plant a few “tasty” hops plants, to see if they’d grow (the abandoned area we were working on is owned by the city).  We asked.  Permission was granted.  It’s unclear whether they actually understood what we were asking, but they gave us the green light as long at didn’t not put any permanent structures in place.

For those of you who don’t know about hops, they are flowers that grow on vines.  The vines grow straight up and can climb any rope, stick, or other plant that they can find all the way up to 5 meters.  The ideal height for hops is around 4 to 5 meters.   Hops are a natural preservative.  They won out through the years as the tastiest preservative for beer, over things like juniper berries, rosemary and loads of other natural preservatives.  There are hundreds of varieties of hops and each of them can add their own, unique flavor to beer.  These flavors can range from citrus, to piney, to spicy, and much more.  Depending on how they are used in the brewing process, they can add either bitter or aromatic flavors and sometimes both.

We needed poles.  As luck would have it someone, whose identity is forever lost in time, planted a bunch of bamboo in the same valley where we found the wild hops.  Today there is a full-on bamboo forest that boasts stalks rising up to 7 and 8 meters.  Again, with permission from the city we cut down 6 bamboo shoots that would serve as poles from which to hang a string for the hops to climb.

We got our hands on some non-garlic-tasting hops thanks to an acquaintance that I’d made in the local homebrewing community in the region.  He grows hops on the nearby Mount Amiata, and was more than willing to give me some rhyzomes (a fancy word for roots).

We planted them.  They grew.  Then we had hops!  We harvested just under one kg of hops.  We are well aware that hops plants in their first year don’t produce to their full capacity and that the flowers don’t reach their full potency.  Nonetheless, a local craft brewery was willing to take a chance and dumped our hops into a one-time-batch of beer.  Our contribution of hops this year was more symbolic than anything as professional breweries use much more than 1 kg of hops per batch.  The “La Diana” brewery produces roughly 500 liters of beer per batch and can use up to 20 kg of hops per batch.  Our goal as a volunteer organization was never to become hops farmers, but rather to find creative ways to reutilize abandoned space.  I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished with this little project and I learned a lot about hops, brewing, and working with local government.  It’s possible that it could turn into something more productive.  We’ll see!

Soon in mid-September, the beer containing our homegrown hops will be officially sold and a portion of the money earned will be donated to our organization.  I can’t wait to taste the fruits of more than a year’s labor!

Here are some pictures start to finish of the project.  The medieval wall can be seen in many of the pictures:

27. Brentry

I should probably update the picture that is the header up there on this blog.  We’re all over the place as always, and now there’s a new entry.  The latest challenge to traditional family stability has come from Oxford University in the UK.  Marianna was offered a post-doc position to collaborate on a project for up to 2 years at Oxford.  Weighing unemployment in Italy against employment Oxford leads to a pretty clear choice.  The complications resulting from that choice are now our reality. 

That sounds rather dramatic.  I suppose that in the eyes of many, it is.  Marianna will be working on this project at the University of Oxford which, in simplified terms, aims to encourage people in England to learn other languages.  It’s a project that would be positive for people in the US too.  She’ll work for 2 months in the UK, taking short breaks to come back to Siena, and then spend 6 weeks in Siena.  This cycle will continue for the next year and a half or so. 

This time around it’s my turn to steer the ship through the rough waters of (temporary) single-parenthood.   Kindergarten is guaranteed in Italy for children from ages 3-5, and it’s free except for lunch fees.  Compared to really expensive daycare in the UK, Italy was the easy choice.  In Italy however, it is far from culturally normal for a father to assume full responsibility for a three-year-old by choice.  I’ve been getting a lot of questions like “Well, who is going to look after your son?”  Those who ask questions like that usually don’t realize how condescending that can sound to someone like me who is, ideologically, a participant in the 21st century.  If you too are wondering, the answer is: It’s me!  I can cook food and I understand how clothing works, both as it is applied to the human form as well as how to clean it.   I don’t mean to oversimplify.  Parenthood is no joke and single-parenthood requires a colossal amount of self-sacrifice.  I have seen the edge where sanity drops off into insanity, but I’ve managed to keep it together so far.  It’s really hard at times, but it’s doable.  I’m also certainly no substitute for Mom.  The situation is probably better described as Dad squared.  My job and the colleagues with whom I work are flexible enough to fit our new arrangement into the organizational scheme.  As long as this isn’t permanent, we’ll make it work.

Of course Sean and I will travel to the UK a few times and that is just what we did recently.  Accordingly, I’ll be writing about experiences and observations made in the UK for a few entries here.  As Europe prepares for Brexit, we’re going against the current.  Call it Brentry?

The UK.  Let’s get the cliché stuff out of the way.  Yes, British people have accents that differ from my own, they apply different meanings to a handful of words in English than us Americans, and their roads and cars are organized based on a photographic negative.  Driving in the upside-down is frightening, but our brain’s ability to adapt prevails and backwards becomes normal surprisingly fast.

Morgan, my friend from college and his wife Becky in Cardiff.

Our week in the UK took us to Cardiff to see an old friend, Bristol to visit Marianna’s cousins, and of course, to Oxford.  There’s a lot to recount, like Sean’s first real trick-or-treat experience, but I’m going to stick to one particular event that was, for me, both a surprise as well as perfectly British. 

Marianna’s supervisor for her project invited us to come to her house for dinner and to watch fireworks.  This was all of the information that we were given.  We were not expecting to torch an effigy of Donald Trump on a huge bonfire in a residential backyard.    

The event was Guy Fawkes day.  As it was explained to us, Guy Fawkes was a Catholic and he was pissed off at the non-Catholic monarchy in England for not being Catholic.  He and some other gentlemen planned on blowing up Westminster Palace with a bunch of gunpowder in 1606.  Guy was found guarding the gunpowder underneath the palace, and that was about it for him.  His capture and the prevention of a deadly, gunpowder-fueled fireworks show is now celebrated by lighting bonfires and shooting of fireworks.  The bonfire tradition is likely tied to age-old harvest and winter ceremonies that predate any of the religions that we currently like to believe.  Following the harvest, there was always a bunch of leftover dried-up plants.  What better way to deal with them than setting them on fire and have a party?  I was told that not long ago in England the halloween tradition of trick-or-treating did not feature candy, but people gave out small amounts of money to children.  A penny for the Guy!” the children would say and they would use the earnings to buy fireworks to set off for the Guy Fawkes celebrations that shortly followed Halloween.

Katrin, Marianna’s supervisor, is German, but has been living in the UK for a long time.  She and her husband have been hosting the Guy Fawkes dinner for about 20 years.  It was a bit awkward being the random people at the party that’s been happening for 20 years.  At least Marianna had an easy explanation for who she was and why she was invited.  I had to introduce myself to everyone as the American husband that Italian over there who’s working with Katrin and is the mother of that little three-year-old who lives with me, his father, in Italy.  Many, understandably were too bewildered to proceed.  Others were willing to engage in conversation despite the complexity and total randomness of my presence and I met some very interesting people.  Among the people I met was an astrophysicist who was traditionally in charge of the fireworks.  Astrophysicists, or rocket scientists, don’t mess around when it comes to fireworks.  This is a fact and it would be proven later in the evening.

The evening started with champagne, and a lot of it and we were cautiously introduced to the the effigy of Mr. Trump.  He was on display in the corner of the room.  It’s unclear whether they were hoping to offend a Trump-supporting American, or receive praise from a Trump-hating American.  As I write this, I realize that, sadly, those are the only two kinds of Americans that now exist.  I find myself among the latter camp of Trump opinionists, and I wholeheartedly condoned their symbolic gesture towards the current president of the USA. 

Dinner was impressively served to more than 25 people at a table made for about 10.  In stereotypically British fashion, politeness prevailed despite almost sitting on top of one-another.  When everyone had been served their sausage and jacket potatoes (baked potatoes, for us, less-descriptive Americans), the patriarch of the situation announced calmly that he would be heading outside to throw Trump onto the bonfire and that fireworks would shortly follow.  The rest of the partygoers were just as mild-mannered and almost nobody reacted with any sense of urgency to follow.  I was thoroughly intrigued however.  I grabbed Sean and took him outside along with Marianna.  I feel that I needed to experience every minute of this and so did my Son. 

True to his word, a bonfire was set ablaze and The Donald was eaten by flames.  Slowly, the rest of the party made their way outside, saying British things like “Ah, yes”, and “Well, that’s a nice fire”.  Meanwhile, I noticed that the four-meter-high flames licking the tree hanging directly over the fire.  I watched, pondering what I know about fire and trees.  Before I could come up with a potential escape plan, a rocket lit by the rocket scientist, shot into the sky and exploded in classic firework form.  The fire raged on, the tree remained a tree, fireworks lit the suburban Oxford sky, and we were served mugs of mulled wine.

It’s the nonchalance and reserved attitude with that British air of class that for me, seems so… British.  Americans would be screaming and hollering at a bonfire and drinking budweiser instead of champagne.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s just as fun, but of a different kind.  Americans in 2017 would also have taken all of the necessary safety precautions to ensure that the event would not be enjoyable at all.  I remember lighting all kinds of fireworks off in the streets in Denver when I was a kid on the 4th of July.  Now the police patrol neighborhoods making sure that nobody is having any kind of fun.  They say that the fire danger is higher than it used to be.  I disagree.  I think that we’re just more afraid of ourselves.  Maybe because we’re scarier.

Italians on the other hand, share the same disregard for safety as the British, but that’s about all.  Traditions in Italy involving bonfires usually come with days worth of pageantry and costumes that pay homage to those who lit stuff on fire before them.  In Italy ceremonies are not calmly enacted whilst people are still finishing dinner.  Dinners at traditional events in Italy take 3 hours and days to prepare.  Then there are speeches upon drawn out, non-linear speeches that nobody can follow.  By the time the traditional event actually occurs in Italy, multiple, sleepless days may have passed.  The casual bonfire that we witnessed in a backyard in Oxford wound down as sensibly as it had started just in time for everyone (except probably Katrin’s family) to have some tea and get a good night’s rest. 

Sipping my mulled wine with one hand and holding Sean so that he wouldn’t end up on fire with the other hand, a thought crossed my mind.  It’s a recurring thought.  How the hell did I end up here?  Of course, I know the answer to that question, but it’s easy to let the the present seem like the only part of the story.  The present in our story is split between Siena and Oxford, and I’ll do my best to write about it, a month or so late if that’s ok. 

Here’s a video of Sean’s adventures in the UK.  Thanks to all!

26. Les Vacances

August always presents a delightful dilemma.  What to do when you don’t have to go to the office for a month?  With no students in August, this is one of the aspects about my job that is unique and wonderful.  Of course, there’s work to be done, but for the most part we’re all free to do it from wherever we want, whenever we want.

Unfortunately I don’t work in a field (or at least in a position) that is famous for salaries that can pay for 1-month vacations.  Sitting at home seemed like wasting an opportunity not to mention, boring.  So, we drove to France for a few weeks!  No, France is not cheap.  However, luck is on our side and Marianna’s sister lives in Angers, France and left us her apartment while she vacationed at home in Italy.  Had she been living in Lithuania, we probably would have gone there.  The key factor to our decision was free lodging.

Angers is a quiet town in the northwest of France.  It’s position on the Loire river made it an important trading depot since medieval times.  Once trains became the preferred mode for transporting people and goods, Angers took a backseat to larger cities closer to the coast like Bordeaux and Nantes.  The city draws mild amounts of tourism for the famous castles along the Loire and excellent wines.  The Loire valley is full of well-maintained bike trails, making Angers a popular day stop on biking vacations.

It’s possible that we are the first ever family to choose to drive from Siena, Italy to Angers, France for a multi-week holiday.  We looked at the situation as an opportunity to experience something completely unknown.  We’d be able to live the reality of life in France, if only for a few weeks.  W planned day trips to other cities and left plenty of space open for new discovery. Yes, we were tourists, but we were way off the beaten paths of mainstream tourism.  According to many in Europe, traditional tourism has become unsustainable.  Here’s a recent article about protests throughout major European tourist destinations where locals feel flooded by wave after wave of tourists .  In contrast, there are tons of wonderful places, dying to share their history and culture with the world, that are overshadowed by conventional landing places.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with seeing famous sites but if I may, I highly recommend going in the opposite direction of the masses.  Beautiful and interesting things are hiding all over the place.

Angers is easy to compare to Siena because they are similar in size, Angers being a bit larger.    Both cities are day-trips for most travelers on broader journey and both rely heavily on the preservation and display of their medieval history.  They each have very well preserved medieval, historic centers.  Siena’s medieval historic center is much larger and far better preserved.  Many don’t know that during medieval times Siena was actually somewhat of a metropolis.  It was also spared during WWII, while Angers suffered some significant damage.  This means that Angers, like so many other cities in Europe was forced to rebuild.  If you’ve read other posts then you may see that I tend to be impressed by innovation and the creative re-utilization of spaces rather than simple preservation.  Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t think that anything should be torn down in order to build shiny, new stuff, but I do believe that innovation is always possible.  While the icon of Angers is a medieval castle along the Loire river, it’s easy to see that the city has made real efforts to develop and innovate both in the city center as well as the residential outlying areas.  As visitors with a three-year-old, there was only so much biking through wine country that we could do.  We spent much of our time in a newly redeveloped area of town that has a wonderful community pool with waterslides and a huge area for kids.  Around the corner from that there’s a massive botanic garden that caters mostly to families, full of playgrounds, rides, and educational areas.  In comparison, Siena’s residential areas outside of the old city center are rather barren when it comes to culture and activities.  That may come off as negative, I see it as an opportunity.  Hint, hint to the local administration… if you’re lacking creativity for how to reuse space go to Nantes, in France.

Just an hour away from Angers towards the Atlantic Ocean lies the city of Nantes.  We spent two days in Nantes with some friends.  Much larger than Angers, Nantes became very wealthy as a trading port during various moments in history, most notably (and sadly), as a hub for the slave trade.  There is a nice, public memorial along the river to the abolition of the slave trade.  Two days after we visited Nantes, the kkk and a bunch of self-proclaimed nazi’s made recent history in the US.  Maybe we could use a few more memorials like this one.

The memorial wasn’t the thing that surprised me the most during our visit to Nantes though.  A giant, robotic (and gorgeous) elephant has become one of the dominant icons of the city.  The old, abandoned shipyard along the river has been repurposed into an attraction that is difficult to put into words.  Many of the old factory buildings have been converted into cafes, restaurants, small businesses, and apartments and they are all cool.  I would have been mildly impressed at just that but Le Machines de L’Ile featuring a robotic elephant th

at gives rides to up to 30 people at a time as it wanders though the neighborhood, interacting with bystanders by spraying water through it’s trunk… well… that was unexpected.  The elephant is just the beginning too.  You can see a massive robotic spider, a crane that carries riders in a baskets and robot bugs for kids to ride.  All of these are part of the project expected to be finished by 2022 to create a huge tree made of a metal frame so large that it will be home to actual trees as well as all of the robots.  The goal of the artists driving the project is to give visitors the opportunity to experience what it is like to be an animal or insect.  Upon seeing it,  the elephant immediately become the highlight of every three-year-old’s life to that point.   It’s hard to say though who liked it more between myself and Sean. 

New attractions may be the answer to unmanageable numbers of tourists.  What if (and I know that traditionalists will find the following words hard to read) a city like Venice had more than just the beautiful, ancient city on the water?  What if there were also some new wonders to behold in the surrounding towns?  In The Netherlands a tulip garden and a town full of traditional windmills were created to divert hoards of selfie-hunting tourists.

The sheer audacity and scope of the insane project in Nantes has restored some hope for humanity in me.  The fact that artists were able to convince a city’s administration to make giant robotic animals and a tree the size of a skyscraper to house robots that people will be able to ride upon is so impressive to me.  Nantes has a medieval castle, a bustling restaurant district, excellent locally made food and wine, and hundreds of centuries of important history.  It’s obvious that someone intelligent asked Why stop there? And another intelligent person answered with Have you got any ideas?   If you think about it, that is the same attitude that built the Eiffel Tower in Paris and long before that the Piazza del Campo in Siena. 

Robots aside, our trip to the less-flashy and less-famous France was exactly what we hoped that it would be.  Something new and interesting.  We ate cheese, met up with French friends that live in Siena, met new people, tried to speak French, got lost a few times, and learned a little bit about a small corner of the Earth.  If you’re going to France, sure, check out Paris, but I also suggest Angers, Poitiers, Clermont-Ferrand, Nantes, Moulins, Annecy and anywhere else along the road. 

Here’s an album of some pictures from our trip and a few explanations of places that I didn’t write about here.  HUGE thanks to The Chabosseau family, their friends for showing us around Poitiers and Nantes, and their neighbors that let us sleep in their basement for three nights.

25. Old Walls And New Ones

The city of Siena is surrounded by ancient walls dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries.  There are even older walls located in the inner (older) layers of the city.  Back in the day, walls were important for preventing your neighbor from entering your city with an army, lighting it on fire, and taking what was left. 

Walls, however, are not an infallible defense technology.  Most humans, given time and resources, can figure out all kinds of ways to breach walls.  In Siena’s case, the walls did their best to protect the sovereignty of the Republic of Siena under constant pressure from their rival, Florence but eventually, Florence would end up dominating not only Siena, but much of Italy (before it was actually Italy).  While the walls can’t be to blame for Siena’s stolen independence they stand as a symbol of resistance.

My parents enjoying a walk near the walls.

Today Siena and Florence are not the mortal enemies that they once were.  The rivalry lingers but doesn’t go much farther than the football stadium and the occasional discussion after a little too much Chianti.  Both Siena and Florence’s walls still stand but in an ironic victory for Siena, the walls surrounding it are the most in-tact and longest stretching in Europe (from the late-medieval period).   They are in fact protected by the UNESCO World Heritage organization along with the rest of Siena’s medieval center.  Florence’s walls are no longer fully in-tact and are only protected by regular Italian laws.  So there. 

Can you find the walls? This is the actual state of some areas.

You would think that Siena’s walls would be an attraction on the list of things to see when visiting the city along with the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo.  The reality is that most of the visitors to the city only see a tiny fraction of the walls.  In fact, the majority of the native Sienese have not seen every meter of the 6km circle of walls.  Much of Siena’s walls are covered by decades-old ivy and it takes a keen eye to spot them from afar.  If you get close to them, of course it’s easy to see the ancient bricks behind the thick, climbing roots.  However, it’s difficult to get close to large stretches of the walls as the access to them often runs through private property.  Many of the owners of properties that are adjacent to the walls are wary of the risk of damaging a UNESCO site while others use this as an excuse to not put in the necessary work to keep things pristine.  To complicate things even more, the walls themselves are actually property of the state of Italy so the city administration always has a few extra bureaucratic hoops to jump through to make any progress concerning the walls.  The situation has been at a standstill for multiple decades.  Unfortunately the ivy hasn’t. 

See that valley behind me? Amazingly, it’s not actually open to the public. This is something that we’re trying to change.

So here we are, because of property issues, bureaucracy and vegetation running wild, a key component of a UNESCO site goes mostly unseen.  Kind of silly for a city that depends greatly on tourism, right?  Three years ago I saw that a group of locals aimed to create an organization with the goal of creating access to the walls and to draw attention to the hidden treasure surrounding Siena.  I volunteered as well and, was asked to be on the board of Le Mura, which in Italian means the walls.  Yeah, it’s not that creative, but it works.  Our little, volunteer organization spends a lot of time on Saturday mornings climbing through jungles of vegetation with chainsaws and other lethal weapons, liberating areas of the walls that many people born in Siena have never seen.  I help with the coordination for our volunteer events and that means that I often involve my students (Siena Italian Studies). 

Students working to clear the walls and a service trail.

This means that many students, living in Siena for only a few months, have seen areas of the walls that those born in Siena never knew existed.  Our organization also spends a significant amount of time working with the local administration to figure out ways to make areas safe and accessible for more people.  We’re also proposing creative ways to use the space surrounding the walls as well as the walls themselves.  We’ve made a lot of progress, but for now our impact is only in its beginning stages. 

For the past few months, one particular comment has stuck with me.  We were hacking away at ivy and someone drew the rather obvious parallel between an American (me) and his American students working to save an ancient wall from falling down while another American talks a lot about building a brand new wall.  If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you can probably at infer some of my opinions regarding the current president of the US.  I don’t want to get too far into political debate here nor do I want to offend anyone (too much).  So what can an American on the board of an ancient wall restoration group say about the proposed billion dollar wall that Mr. Trump wants to build along the thousands of miles of border between Mexico and the US?  Well, I can say a number of things.  For instance it sounds like the kind of idea that my three-year-old Son, Sean would have.  Sean is pretty sharp, but he’s not accustomed to fully thinking through his ideas yet.  

Stabs at the intelligence of the US presidents and the shortsightedness of those who loyally support stupid ideas aside, let’s examine how the wall in Siena fared over time.  Did it keep the enemy out?  Nope.  The enemy came into the city over the walls, under the walls, and many times right through the gates in the walls.  I suppose that they could have avoided the gate issue by not building any but that seems like another underdeveloped plan.  Siena’s enemies had simple technology.  Ladders, shovels, disguises, etc.  Right now in 2017 people can fly around on drones.  Also, both ladder and shovel technology have been vastly improved upon.   I’m afraid that the effectiveness of walls is probably as weak as ever.  

Trump’s fantastic plan (from The Economist)

Many border wall enthusiasts pose the argument that building a really long wall would create jobs.  Indeed it would!  Spending billions of dollars on anything will create jobs.  Spending billions of dollars fixing the decomposing infrastructure might be a better way to create jobs.  Infrastructure is just a fancy word for stuff that we already built and that is now falling apart.  Fixing stuff that we already have  is not the symbolic gesture of nationalist dominance that is building a concrete wall (or is it just a fence now?).  I understand that it’s a political play.  Making our existing constructions safer and more efficient may be a better long-term political play.  It’s obvious that Trump isn’t interested in the long-term. If he were, he might take look at a place like Siena.  It and the rest of Europe have a lot more experience with fixing what they have.  The house where I lived previous to now was 600 years old and it acted as a functional house like any other.  Who knows how many renovations it has seen or how many jobs it created over the years?  That’s just one tiny, little apartment of millions in Europe.  My point is that I don’t buy the “It’ll create jobs” argument. 

I could go on and on, but I’ll spare the rant.  Much as I disagree, he’s the president and there are a lot of people think that he’s got great ideas.  Maybe we’ll end up with a really fantastic wall along the southern border of the US.  What about Canada though?  They might start selling weed to people in North Dakota!  But I digress…. If Trump were to get his fancy fence inevitably people will climb over, under, and through it and inevitably it will become obsolete like all walls as nations and people evolve.  Maybe one day, long after its obsolescence is confirmed, some volunteers will take pity on the failed defense system and create an organization to restore it and reuse the space surrounding it for the benefit of all.  Or, maybe not.  Maybe future generations will see it as nature’s role to rip down all of the walls that we’ve built between ourselves.