Archive for category Travel

The Venetian Republic, 697-1797


The last western Roman Emperor was deposed in 476.  The Italian peninsula was in ruin – barbarian tribes were attacking what was left of the old imperial glory, and soon the knowledge and order of Rome gave way to the dark ages, as politics throughout Europe became exceedingly local, with custom and tradition defining social life.  With the church embracing Augustine’s other-worldly theology (this world has no value, it can only tempt you – eschew the things of the world and focus on preparing for the afterlife), progress stopped.

Venice was different.  As Rome fell, a group seeking safety decided that the sand dunes around what is now Venice could make it a defensible city, and keep out the barbarians.  They took wood and piled it up in the lagoon, literally creating islands!  Wood does not decay as quickly under water, and wood from that era was much stronger than today.  Without so much carbon in the atmosphere the rings of trees are tighter – that wooden foundation still holds Venice up today.

Fitting that the last western Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus - Romulus was the name of Rome's mythical founder, Augustus was the man who began imperial rule.

Fitting that the last western Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus – Romulus was the name of Rome’s mythical founder, Augustus was the man who began imperial rule.

Early on they fished and focused simply on creating a sustainable life style.   They recognized the authority of the Byzantine Empire to the East.  Rome had split into East and West, as Emperor Constantine created the city of Constantinople to rule the East.    For a time it kept the Roman heritage alive, and could provide Venice protection.   For the ensuing centuries Venice couldn’t really be called Italian – they focused on the East and stayed out of Italian political life.

Politically, the Venetians created one of the most successful Republics in history.   In 697 they elected their first Doge, who would be the symbolic leader.  The Venetian Republic would last 1100 years, and be dynamic for most of that time.   It’s decline would start in the 1400s but even in decline Venice would remain stable and prosperous.

Their political system was complex.  Up until 1297 nobility was something that came with wealth – if you were a successful merchant, you could be in the Venetian ruling class.  The system had what we would call checks and balances to guard against any group getting too much power.  The Doge was “first among equals” and had very limited power.

The onion domes at San Marco show the Byzantine influence on Venice

The onion domes at San Marco show the Byzantine influence on Venice

The rise of Venice as a true power started with the first crusade of 1095.   Although we tend to see the crusades in primarily religious terms, and certainly religion was the rationale provided, it was also political.  Europeans had been fighting the Vikings and other groups for centuries.  By the eleventh century things had stabilized and they needed something for their warrior class to do – expansion to the east was natural.  Venice would transport troops and material for the crusade, and bring back goods to sell.   Quickly they became exceedingly wealthy and their influence grew.

The Serrata of 1297 altered the Republic by preventing anyone new from joining the Venetian Great Council.  Nobility was now by birth, ending the centuries of having a ruling class that was chosen by a kind of entrepreneurial meritocracy.  However, the nobility knew that they could not lose the loyalty of the rest of the merchant class, so they created the cittadini originari which gave those who might begrudge the new nobility certain rights and powers.  Various workers had their own status, as well as political roles.  It worked.

What Venice managed to do was to create a system with virtually no political dissent.   They did this by institutionalizing decision making in a manner that kept everyone with the same goal: protect and enhance Venetian prosperity.  Differences of opinion were worked out peacefully, almost invisibly.

The dark red was original Venice, lighter red is territory they acquired.  Pink they held temporarily.  Yellow routes, and light yellow shade is where Venice dominated trade in the 1300s

The dark red was original Venice, lighter red is territory they acquired. Pink they held temporarily. Yellow routes, and light yellow shade is where Venice dominated trade in 1500

This gave them the capacity to defeat Genoa in 1381, becoming for awhile the dominant force in European international trade.  Venice was at the height of its power, but faced a new problem.   The Byzantine empire, which was a buffer from the power of the Islamic world, was in rapid decline.   The Ottoman Empire emerged as a real threat.  At that point Venice truly became Italian, and in the 1400s built the Terrafirma empire which stretched almost to Milan.

Alas, this led to rivalry with other Italian powers, and in 1509 Venice was defeated at Agnadello.  If not for the Pope, who wanted Venice to remain a buffer preventing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Italy, the city might have been taken and the Republic would have ended.  As it was, it would last almost 300 more years.

Venetian power was in decline, however.   Their defeat at Agnadello combined with the expansion of the Ottomans to eat away at Venice’s trade dominance.   When Portugal managed to get around the cape of Africa, states on the Atlantic coast rose in trade power.  It’s a credit to the Venetian Republican system that it could endure all that without creating bitter rivalries.  Other cities like Genoa and Florence were weakened by internal power structures, Venice was not.

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In some ways, Venetian history is more impressive than that of the Roman Empire.  They remained a republic (albeit an oligarchic one), and except for the relatively small terrafirma, focused on making profit rather than expanding territory.  Imperial Rome was constantly riveted by civil war and power struggles – Venice had a kind of unity of purpose that is rare.

As a political scientist I ponder what they got right, and if there are lessons we can learn.   More on that soon; those who may join us on the May term trip to Italy, think of the rich, wonderful history we’ll encounter.  Venice is so much more than beautiful canals and narrow alleys.

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Hadrian’s Rome

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian was Rome’s Emperor from 117-138.  This was a fateful time for the Roman Empire.  His predecessor Trajan ruled from 98-117, and was declared by the Roman Senate Optimus Princeps, the greatest leader of Roman history – even surpassing Augustus.  Trajan had reformed the empire and brought it to near its apex of power, territory and prosperity.  Hadrian would die despised by many, lacking his predecessor’s foresight and diplomacy.

What is fascinating about Hadrian’s rule is that the path Rome took early in that second Century helped program the future decline of what would become the western Empire, and set up the rise of Christianity.   It is fair to say that civilization had a level of comfort and prosperity in second Century Rome that was not equaled until the 20th Century.

Hadrian’s foreign policy was a sign of the change.  He built fortifications along the frontiers to protect the empire.  This was a momentous pivot from ongoing offensive wars to expand the empire in favor of a clearly defensive approach.  The empire was comfortable and content – why get involved in costly foreign wars?

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian's wall in Great Britain still stand.   The wall also had ditches.  Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian’s wall in Great Britain still stand. The wall also had ditches. Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Hadrian’s era also began an intensely spiritual part of Rome’s history.   Christianity was spreading, especially among women who rebelled against some of Rome’s harsh sexism.  Women would convert their husbands and family, and the once Jewish sect became a major force in the Roman world.   Most Romans, however, would have probably found themselves more comfortable with the Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Epictetus was born a slave but was later freed.   Like Jesus and Socrates before him, he (55-135) never wrote down his words, but simply taught.  An example:  “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”  That’s the stoic philosophy.  You control your mind and your actions – everything else is beyond your control.  You can’t control the twists of fate, the choices of others or even the consequences of your actions.   So to be happy you must accept whatever happens to you.

Hadrian's pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods - for Rome in an era of spirituality

Hadrian’s pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods – for Rome in an era of spirituality

To the stoic, one becomes enslaved if they get enmeshed in trying for wealth or success, pining for a lost love, or even feeling sorrow at the death of a friend or family member.  God controls those things, we control only our mind.  Later Marcus Aurelius, a late Second Century Roman Emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and stoic philosopher would say “Someone will irritate me today.  I must not let it bother me.”  To the stoic a human has the power not to let their happiness depend on anything anyone else does – or anything that happens.  That is the will of God.

The stoic philosophy had a natural fit with Christian beliefs, especially with the Greek twist Augustine gave Christian theology in the Fourth Century.  That helped assure that Rome would adopt Christianity as its official religion, which has shaped our world to this day.

This also was the start of a shift to a society that would lose itself to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, no longer embodying the virtues of early Rome.  Marcus Aurelius would be a virtuous leader and stoic philosopher who would spend much of this rule trying to defeat the Germans.  However his son and successor Commodus would live purely for his own pleasure.  Instead of tolerating the gladiatorial games, he embraced them and in fact participated, becoming a reasonably proficient gladiator himself.  Most put the start of Rome’s decline with Commodus.   And the war with the Germans?   Commodus couldn’t be bothered, he signed a peace treaty which emboldened the Germans who saw that as weakness.

Hadrian's villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Hadrian’s villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Ironically Rome’s success helped program its fall.  Though there would be efforts to expand the empire after Hadrian, Rome was at its apex.  The people were growing soft due to comfort, and resource use helped deplete Rome’s forests and force them to go to greater lengths to keep up their lifestyles.  The Imperial form of government would leave Rome subject to poor rule by power hungry Emperors and increasing political intrigue – with poisonings and other types of assassination common.

Next May I co-lead a travel course to Italy.  One focus will be “Rome of the Second Century,” with visits to some of Hadrian’s sites, and discussion of the Emperors of that era – from Trajan to Commodus.   We’ll try to get a feel for what life in Rome was like – and how in some ways it wasn’t so unlike our own.  In fact, we’d probably feel more comfortable in Second Century Rome than 17th Century Europe.   Exploring Rome is always enjoyable.  To learn about and experience it through the eyes of the past makes it even more powerful.


Dancing in Germany and Austria

Thanks to Taylor for putting together this awesome video.  Our travel course in a nutshell!


Travel and History

The Dachau concentration camp was not an extermination camp, but the way the National Socialists rounded up anyone who did not publicly  adhere to their ideology is  a warning against believing those who use fear and false promises

The Dachau concentration camp was not an extermination camp, but the way the National Socialists rounded up anyone who did not publicly adhere to their ideology is a warning against believing those who use fear and false promises

Aging has its downfalls. On this travel course, while I still out do some of the students (I love to walk), my back is in pain after a few days on uneven pavement, and I keep a slower pace when climbing, such as the walk to the castle in Salzburg.

But there is a real joy and beauty to having a perspective that spans decades. I was first in Munich in 1982. As I looked at the train station and imagined it then and now, it struck me that the changes reflect cultural shifts. More consumption, more fast food, everything more colorful and electronic. There is now an electronic billboard where the old train arrival/departure board stood. It flipped numbers and letters to change, now a big screen simply lists the trains.

I was in Berlin for the first time in 1989 – late July and early August. In retrospect, I was there literally in the last days of Cold War “normalcy.” I was fascinated by the ride through East Germany, observing villages with TV antennas atop the homes, cars covered so deep with soot from the huge factories near Bitterfeld and Wittenberg that one would need to brush it away like snow in the winter.

The Reichstag building now has a glass dome at the top to symbolize the new, open, democratic republic of a united Germany

The Reichstag building now has a glass dome at the top to symbolize the new, open, democratic republic of a united Germany

Going to East Berlin I was shocked by the economic conditions – the central store on Alexanderplatz had nothing worth buying, and that was their showpiece department store! I ate lunch, walked and observed. I can’t describe the emotion I felt when I walked down Unter den Linden to the east side of the wall. I could see observers on a platform in the west looking over. The division of the city was absurd. Little did I know, it was also going to last only three more months. In early August, no one knew what was about to happen.

Going back to Berlin, I find myself at times with a few tears in my eyes. It’s strange, but the power of the transformation moves me. The communist system in the east was so oppressive, dysfunctional and immoral that I still feel a sense of real joy when I’m on Alexanderplatz, or viewing the city from the dome of the Reichstag building. I was contemplating all of this with a few students and said, “we notice all the disasters of history, but the last 25 years it’s gone right for Berlin.”

To think, the Cold War, the Wall, Communism…those are abstractions for anyone under 30 in Berlin. It’s history, stories from their parents. Their reality is smart phones, social media, the Euro (it’s been 12 years since they used the Deutschmark) and globalization. I see that in my students too. Most had never heard for the 1972 terror attack at the Munich Olympics (we discussed that while visiting the Olympic grounds and tower), their questions about the division of Germany and the Cold War show most don’t really understand what it was all about. Their reality is much different than the reality of my generation.


The wall, once the real symbol of the Cold War - the Communists had to build a wall to keep citizens from fleeing their "farmer and worker paradise" - is now an odd historical curiosity for the younger generation.

The wall, once the real symbol of the Cold War – the Communists had to build a wall to keep citizens from fleeing their “farmer and worker paradise” – is now an odd historical curiosity for the younger generation.  This is the “East Side Gallery,” a replica of the wall, with new and classic graffiti. 

Though part of me envies the fact they are young, have their lives in front of them, and are in a world where globalization offers profound possibilities and unpredictable change, I embrace the fact that I can experience these cities now with the perspective of time. I can see what’s changed and what has not. I understand how dramatically the world has changed since the early eighties, when most Germans only got three television stations and credit cards were an American phenomenon. In the 80s they were still catching up to the US, in many ways they have now passed us.

In Salzburg we saw an exhibition on World War I – “Trauma, Art and War,” showing how people enthusiastically welcomed a war they would all come to hate, and which would only make things worse in Europe. In Dachau we visited the concentration camp. The power of that place was such that I had to leave the students for awhile to be on my own, again, the emotion welled up in me and I was brushing away tears. It wasn’t just about the victims, but thinking of Germany itself, how they give in to the horror of a radical fascist right wing dictatorship.

I told the students that one lesson of history is that ideology is dangerous. The far right and far left were seductive in their simplistic explanation of what would make the world better. They also each tried to paint the other as not really being their ideology – the right says that fascism was leftist, the left calls communism ‘red painted fascism.’ Now Germans embrace pragmatism over ideology, and that has put them in very good condition.

A perfect meal - Muenchner Sauerbraten, Semmelknoedel,and a Schneider Hefe-Weizen (best beer on the planet)

A perfect meal – Muenchner Sauerbraten, Semmelknoedel,and a Schneider Hefe-Weizen (best beer on the planet)

I am writing this on the train between Munich and Vienna. Trains rarely have compartments any more, now it’s wide open seating. The windows can’t be opened as the trains are air conditioned. Yet there is a consistency to train travel that brings the years together for me. Gliding on the rails (even if it’s a tad quieter), the announcements, one of the conductors blowing a whistle when the doors are about to close and the train goes on, that holds the experience together across time.

Looking at the Austrian countryside, the villages look the same, though the solar panels on a surprisingly large number of roofs also show the 21st Century. On to Wien!  (Posted from Wien – some trains have wifi, but the one I was traveling upon did not!)

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How Hostels Have Changed


So much to blog about!   In Berlin the power of the past still moves me.  We had a theme of the history of the Reichstag (above) as a constant connecting Imperial Germany to today – and the diverse episodes of war, fascism, division, etc. – can be linked when viewed through that perspective.   I will blog about that – but not today.  I also have started blog entries about the joy I still feel when I encountered unified, free Berlin!  The changes over the last 25 years – a city in constant transition – excite and amaze me.

I have at least two blog entries to write on that.

Today after a train ride to Munich I gave the students a seminar that started at Odeonplatz, where Hitler’s “Beer hall putsch” of November 9, 1923 met its demise.   I now joke with my students, I’ll be talking about something and I’ll say “give me the date” and they’ll yell “November 9!”  That was the day the Kaiser abdicated and Germany was declared a republic in 1918, Hitler’s “putsch” attempt, Kristallnacht of 1938, and of course when the wall came down in 1989.   Apparently, Germany is a Scorpio.

So we discussed Hitler’s rise, then went down the street not more than a kilometer to the memorial to Sophie Scholl, my personal hero (along with her brother and others in the White Rose).   At Geschwister Scholl Plaza (meaning literally ‘Siblings School Square,’ though it doesn’t sound as awkward in German as in English) we talked about her story and its aftermath.  I also talked at length about the film made, “The Last Days of Sophie Scholl.”   As we finished I walked by a newspaper stand and the headline on Bild Zeitung was that Alexander Held’s wife (Held played the Gestapo interrogator in the film) died from internal bleeding, and he found her dead at home.  Yikes.

I’ve got a big blog entry to write on that, and how cool it was to use place to connect history and emphasize both the evil and good expressed in Germany’s past.   But not tonight.

I can’t blog and be a solo instructor at the same time.  I don’t have time to craft a thoughtful blog about a subject of importance.  So tonight I’m going to end with a short look at how hostels have changed.

My first time in Munich was 30 years ago.   I recall going to the hostel, lining up and waiting over an hour for them to open the doors and assign rooms.  It was first come first serve, the doors didn’t open until 3:00.   We were in a barracks like room, and had a midnight curfew – then the doors closed.   There were lockers for valuables at least.

In the morning one showered in a large shared shower, and then at breakfast I was handed a brotchen, slice of cheese, bad coffee, and that was it.  It felt more like prison.  We had to be out from 10:oo to 3 as they cleaned.   But it was cheap!

An awesome group to travel with!

An awesome group to travel with!

Now at Hotel Wombats the place is open 24 hours.  We’re warmly greeted by staff who tell students to get their bedsheets and make their beds (they don’t allow sleeping bags or your own bedding for sanitary reasons), there is free wifi, a bar on the premises (students each got a free drink voucher), a shower in every room (though rooms can have 8 people), and a fun atmosphere.

Their breakfast is a buffet style with brotchen (rolls), different kinds of bread, toasters, jams, different kinds of cheeses, salami, different kinds of meats, cereal, cukes, milk, juices, coffee, eggs, and more.   Yet it’s still pretty reasonably priced!

I thought of that as I walked through Munich’s train station tonight, realizing that it is nothing like how I experienced it the first time.  I could see how the old station fit generally in the structure, but everything was different.  There’s a blog entry about that coming up too.

But not tonight – and maybe not until after the trip is done.

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Flying Aer Lingus

Right now I am 40,001 feet above the Atlantic, due south of Reykjavik, likely to arrive in Dublin in one and a half hours.  The computer is pressed against me and I have to squeeze my hands to my body to type – not a lot of room (of course the guy in front of me has his chair down).  The flight has been good.

One thing strikes me – Aer Lingus charges for almost everything but the dinner (which was OK).   Usually at least wine is free at dinner, but any alcohol cost money (though soft drinks are free).  That’s the first time I’ve seen that on an international flight, but I’ve never flown Aer Lingus.   So I partook of soda water for my beverage – probably a good idea because I’m getting no sleep.

We do have personal video screens, and I watched Catching Fire and Muhammad Ali’s Toughest Fight (or something like that – it was about the Supreme Court deciding the case against him being a conscientious objector).   Catching Fire was pretty good, though not great.  I loved the Supreme Court movie, mixing real clips of Ali and the news with a fictional portrayal of the court.   Though Frank Langella really portrayed Warren Burger in a sinister way.  Christopher Plummer was his usual amazing self.

So there was a bit of memory of the film Syriana with Jeffrey Wright in Catching Fire, and Plummer in the Ali movie.

The van ride from UMF was great – Kat Zachary, a recent grad, was fun to chat with, and the trip was quick and uneventful.  At the airport students wondered where I was when I disappeared to a corner and posted last semester’s grades – don’t want to have to think of that while we’re in Germany.

It seems like a great group of kids along – only three males, ten females, and they seem very eager to explore Germany.   We have a relatively short layover in Dublin, and then it’s on to Berlin!   I’ll blog again when I get the chance!

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Next Stop: Berlin!

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One of the joys of teaching at UMF is the ability to offer travel courses, usually in May term, winter term or February break.  My first one was back in 2000/01 over winter break with 20 students to Italy.  That was back when the US economy looked super strong so the Euro cost only 78 cents.   The Italians still used the lire, but already the European currencies were locked in the Euro rate, with Euro coins and notes taking over in 2002.  The dollar was so strong almost everyone on the trip bought leather jackets in Florence, ate out a lot, and had a small trip fee (for hotel, flight, and train) of $1250.

In January 2001, leading my first travel course, I gave a seminar on the EU at the Pompeii amphitheater

In January 2001, leading my first travel course, I gave a seminar on the EU at the Pompeii amphitheater

In the winter of 2003/04 I lead 18 students to Germany, going to Weimar, Berlin, Koeln and Koblenz.   At that time UMF had only one other professor offering travel courses, so this was new territory.   Now there are probably ten or so a year, and the university is trying to expand them.

In May 2005 I joined three other professors – Steve Pane from Music History, Sarah Maline from Art History and Luann Yetter in Literature – to offer a multifaceted course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome.   We had nearly 40 students, and the trip was amazing.   We reprised that trip in January 2006/07, February break 2008 and 2009, May 2011 and May 2013.    In February 2009 and May 2013 only two faculty members could go since we didn’t have so many students (Sarah and I in 2009, Steve and I in 2013).  We’re hoping to have enough for all four of us to go again in 2015.

My colleague Steve Pane, at a picnic during the 2005 course for over 40 of us, near the Piazza Michelangelo

My colleague Steve Pane, at a picnic during the 2005 course for over 40 of us, near the Piazza Michelangelo

Steve, Sarah and I did a Vienna-Munich-Berlin trip in 2010, and I lead a solo trip to Berlin, Bonn and Munich in 2012.   So this Monday when I lead a solo course to Berlin, Munich and Vienna, it’ll be my 11th travel course.   They are a lot of work – organizing the itinerary, booking hotels, airfare, trains, etc.   Even on trips led by a number of us, I am the logistics/budget coordinator.  That doesn’t mean I do more work — the others have unenviable jobs of dealing with sick students (sometimes taking them to the ER), handling lost passports, or various tasks.  But the work is worth it, in some ways I enjoy traveling while teaching more than I would enjoy leisure travel.

It is extremely rewarding to be able to watch students learn another culture, to share what I’ve learned about Germany or Italy with them.  To learn about art and music from my colleagues on the multi-faculty trips, expanding my knowledge, with all of us seeing connections between the disciplines that we hadn’t before.

My colleague Luann Yetter during her popular Dante walking tour in Florence

My colleague Luann Yetter during her popular Dante walking tour in Florence

I think the second trip to Italy we were heading out for a walk after checking in to the Venice hotel.   We make sure the students stay up until at least 10:00 the day we arrive so they can get their body clocks adjusted to European time.   We were heading out and then I heard a commotion, “look at that!”  I looked – but saw nothing out of the ordinary.  The students zoomed by with cameras and started taking pictures of the canals.  Then I realized – I had been to Venice enough that the canals seemed ordinary to me, but through the students I could see them again as if for the first time.   That keeps the experiences fresh – though it is cool to know that I am quite familiar with how to navigate Venice, Florence and Rome!

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Above – 42 students and 4 faculty made our 2011 trip the largest!

Some students have never been out of the country; we’ve had at least one who had never been on an airplane before.  Some have traveled before.   But we always develop group bonds, traveling together and sharing two weeks.   When it ends people vow to keep in touch and not lose that connection.   Alas, people do go their separate ways, but there is always talk of alumni trips or people coming back to travel again.   For many these travel courses are a life changing experience.

Finally me in a photo!  Talking with students about connecting concepts and themes in the course so far

Me during the 2011 trip, at a park in Florence as we broke into groups to discuss various questions connecting course themes.

So Monday I leave with 13 students for Berlin, flying Aer Lingus via Dublin.  The course is “German Political History,” and we’ll include Austria with the Vienna visit.   Everything is arranged, the weather looks fantastic, and all I have to do is pack and hope that everyone makes it to the airport without a hitch.  Hopefully I’ll find some time to blog during the next two weeks (during the 2011 Italy trip I kept a pretty extensive blog).

So now I have to get in my grades by Sunday, pack and be ready!  I will try to blog while underway!

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No spoilers about story or plot in this entry!

On May 14th I was among the first to purchase Dan Brown’s new book, Inferno.   By the next day I had finished all 463 pages, it is perhaps the best in the Robert Langdon series, including the earlier books Angels and Demons, The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol.

The reason I devoured the book is because almost of all the action takes place in either Florence or Venice; the lion’s share in Florence.   On Monday I take off with students on a travel course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome.  This book whetted my appetite for Italy with brilliantly descriptive images of Florence, mixing tidbits of history with a story line that honored perhaps the greatest and most influential author of history, Dante Alighieri.

Dante’s book The Divine Comedy included The Inferno, which was Dante’s description of hell.  Brown notes that most of our images of a dark underworld of torture, demons and suffering come from Dante’s imagery.   Yet Dante wasn’t simply trying to depict a religious vision of hell – quite the contrary.   His book was sarcastic social commentary – a kind of satire – in which famous politicians, church leaders and other elite of his day found themselves suffering somewhere in the inferno, with the punishment always fitting the sin.

Exiled from his city of Florence in 1301 due to political rivalries, Dante (1265-1321) wrote The Divine Comedy as a kind of literary revenge, skewering leaders and the politics of the day, while honoring his muse Beatrice, a woman he had barely met but with whom he had fallen in love.   She died at 24, but remained a muse for the poet until his death.  Dante wrote The Divine Comedy before the printing press, but in the vernacular.  In fact, modern Italian is traced back to Dante, so great was his influence.

Botticelli's image of Dante's inferno.

Botticelli’s image of Dante’s inferno.

Dante was one of the first humanists, moving away from a focus on the divine to a perspective embracing the world as it was.    While in exile he would meet Giotto, whose Scrovegni Chapel in Padova broke with past practices to offer a true humanist perspective.   The life of Christ is told with emotion and realistic detail.    Humanism would change European thought forever, and make the enlightenment possible.

While most of that is away from Brown’s story line, which looks more towards the future than the past, his embrace of Dante adds an historical poignancy and meaning which puts Inferno  a step ahead of his previous efforts.   For anyone who loves Florence, the book is a must read; he captures the spirit of the city while describing some of its most compelling locations.

Angels and Demons  was my favorite before now.  I not only liked the story line – mixing the CERN Large Hadron Collider with a Papal Conclave – but it has delightful images of some of my favorite places in Rome.   I make sure to do an “Angels and Demons walking tour” when I take students to Italy.  Not only do those who have read the book identify with the places we see, but Brown does an excellent job in choosing interesting and relevant locales.

Dan Brown, author.

Dan Brown, author.

In the future I will add “Inferno” walking tours to both Venice and Florence.   I may even try this year, though since the book just came out I doubt too many students will have read it.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes a fast paced plot with twists, turns, compelling characters and a few dramatic surprises.   It is a must read for those who love Italy, especially Florence and Venice.

So I’m ready to head to Italy next week, starting in Venice and then going on to Florence and Rome.  It was a pleasant surprise that Brown’s latest novel would be released just in time for me to re-immerse myself into Florentine history and images from both Florence and Venice.

Next week I start blogging from Italy.  My co-instructor in this endeavor is Dr. Steven Pane, who teaches Music History.  He also is fascinated by the study of sound, and plans a sound seminar for our first day in Venice to help students learn to appreciate the different sounds of various cities and locations.   I sent him this snippet from Inferno  (p. 313), set at the piazza San Marco.   Steve said this could be an introduction to his seminar:

“It was not until this moment, as he entered the sheltered square, that Langdon could fully appreciate this city’s most unique offering.


With virtually no cars or motorized vehicles of any kind, Venice enjoyed a blissful absence of the usual civic traffic, subways, and sirens, leaving sonic space for the distantly unmechanical tapestry of human voices, cooing pigeons, and lilting violins serenading patrons at the outdoor cafes.  Venice sounded like no other metropolitan center in the world.”

Next week, blogging from Italy!


Travel Well, Live Well

The Duomo and Baptistery in Firenze

This coming May we plan on offering a travel course to Italy.   It will be the seventh time I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy with student.  I’ve visited Italy five other times, including the year I lived in Bologna while attending the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (from which I earned my MA).

Having just discovered some cool websites involving Italy including Margieinitaly, lovebeautyexperience,  and traveling foodie, I’m very engaged with planning of the trip.   I’m the “trip planner,” the one who makes arrangements and takes care of the finances (in exchange my colleagues take over a lot of excess work during the trip itself).

Venice has been described as a “thinking person’s Disneyland,” but it’s beauty is real

The trip is difficult to plan because of the numbers.   We routinely have 40 students and four faculty, flying into Venice and out of Rome.    Venice is not a major hub so to get inexpensive tickets for that many people requires booking early.

My colleagues:  Steve Pane (Music History), Sarah Maline (Art History) and Luann Yetter (Literature) are the other three faculty, and together we’ve created a tight, integrated interdisciplinary course that yields an academic experience unlike any I’ve encountered.   Not only are we “on the scene” when we talk about art, history, the Catholic Church, or Florence, but over the years we’ve amazed ourselves by how much we learn from each other.    We find connections between disciplines and perspectives, and develop those in conversations with students.  The trip is always an educational experience for us as well as for the students.  There’s always more to learn!

Luann Yetter near Santa Maria Nouvella, talking about Dante at the end of the “Dante walking tour.”

1.  Numbers and Recruitment.    While it may seem like we’d be more comfortable with fewer than forty students, the economics of such a course requires at least nine students for each faculty member at a minimum.   We’re now gathering e-mail addresses of perspective participants, communicating with students who might be interested, and Monday held an early meeting (with a slide show!)   Because the course has a reputation, we usually have a good number who really want to go — but getting to forty can be daunting.

2.  Hotels.   Hotels are a challenge with over 40 people.   Luckily we’ve made connections over the years.  We know of a good hotel in Venice, Agli Artisti, near the train station.   Our favorites are the FLorentine hotels Abacho and Giappone, just blocks from the Duomo.   The Florence hotels feature five flights of stairs and no elevator, but the people there are awesome – we’ve stayed there every time.   Rome varies.   We usually stay near the Termini train station because it’s convenient, but they don’t like booking large groups.   We often have to break the group up.   My strategy now is to inquire about smaller groups in a number of hotels located close to each other.

Here I am with students in a Florence park, a seminar about the themes of the course so far (students were divided in groups, faculty rotated)

3.   Money.   Every trip has had a balanced budget.   As “keeper of the finances” my task is to determine a travel fee (cost of airfare, hotels, internal travel, public transportation, airport service, and many museums and events) and keep it as inexpensive as possible.   We do pretty good.   We get group rate train tickets (much cheaper than the Italian rail passes we got our first time); with hotels we balance price and quality.   By quality I mean safety and cleanliness, we eschew luxuries!   Students bring their own money for meals and others (though hotels usually have breakfast).

The hard part – determining the price in September without knowing what the value of the Euro will be in May.   Sometimes, it makes things really tight.    Even pricing in a higher value things can shoot up, that happened a couple of times and it was a struggle to stay in budget.   Once, though, the Euro dropped pretty dramatically and we were able to have some group meals and extra day trips.

Not the best quality photo, but our friends at Hotel Abacha (via dei Banchi) in Florence surprised us with some bread and wine one evening

4.  Logistics.   Who is coming?   How many need a bus to the airport?   Can we pick people up at the Kennebunk rest area?   How early should we get to the airport?    Too early and people get bored, but we don’t want to risk a flat tire or traffic jam threatening our flight!   One thing I learned is that when you’re traveling with a big group, airlines treat you right.   They don’t want to rebook 40 people.

Once we flew Portland-New York-Rome.   Due to a weather delay we arrived in New York at the very time our Rome flight was to depart.  I was convinced we’d have to spend the night near JFK.   Nope – Delta had a bus next to plane just to get our group to our flight.  They had held it for us, gave us boarding passes as we entered, and the best part is that our luggage arrived on time too!   Another time in London British Airways switched to a bigger plane to rebook us to Vienna (on a Germany-Austria trip) after we missed our flight due to volcanic ash.

Vatican seminar – the history and politics of the Catholic Church is fascinating

Theme of the Course:  Travel well, live well.   Traveling well means to accept that problems will emerge.   Museums will be closed, trains will be late, we’ll get lost, we’ll miss out on something, and our feet will get blisters.

Some people get very annoyed when things don’t go as planned, they get mad at airlines, the trains, and people who seem to be mucking up their day.   Stress builds.   These people are not traveling well.   The key is to let it go, go with the flow.   No matter how bad it seems, you’ll have a story and things will work out.    Once a student forgot his passport at the hostel and had to miss the train from Florence to Rome.   We gave him instructions to catch the next one, but due to a change of platforms about three hours into his trip he noticed the Alps.   Ooops, not Rome.   But he made it.

Another student had a passport stolen, others have gotten ill, and we get lost and off schedule quite a bit!   Don’t let such things get the better of you, look at it all as an experience — enjoy and travel well!   My experience is that if you can travel well, those traits carry over into every day life.   Problems get solved, life goes on, and you collect experiences!

Still eight months to go, but already I’m thinking of Italy!

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An unforgettable train conversation

Some of my most memorable conversations have taken place on trains in Europe

It was January 25, 1992 and I had just spent a few days with students from St. Olaf College, helping out on a “global semester” course run by Professor Rod Grubb.   I was living in Bonn, working on my dissertation, and had been hired by Professor Grubb to come help out as he led 15 students around the world, with a January stop in Berlin.   The students were great as we explored old East Berlin, not yet rebuilt or remodeled — a Berlin that is now gone.

I had to take the train back to Bonn, buying the German newsweekly Der Spiegel and finding a compartment that was empty.   Nowadays European trains tend to have open seating, much like airplanes.  In those days they were generally divided in compartments of six seats, three people facing three others.

Those compartments yielded some of the most memorable conversations of my life.  I recall once spending a night in deep conversation with four others on an overnight train from Bologna to Munich.    I chatted with a girl from Austria who got pulled from the train by the police when we crossed over into Germany.   Seems she had a striking resemblance to a female terrorist – she said she got pulled aside almost every time she crossed from Austria to Germany.   I developed a crush on her, got her address, but never saw or heard from her again.

Three seats like this were across from three other seats, often fostering conversation between strangers, and even lasting friendships

On this January day I was anticipating an uneventful trip.   However, soon my compartment was invaded by three talkative elderly women.    I had a window seat and buried myself in Der Spiegel as the train zoomed westward.    At some point one of the women was having trouble putting a bag onto the luggage rack above.   I stood up and offered to help, and she was very thankful.    She asked where I was heading, and I told her Bonn.   I think she could tell my accent was not German so she asked if I lived there.   Yes, I said, but only for this year, as I was actually a student from Minnesota studying in Germany.

She started asking me about Minnesota and my impressions of Germany.   It was a pleasant conversation, and the other women joined in.   At some point I mentioned Germany history, and the false impressions Americans had of Germany because of war movies and images of Hitler and the Nazis.

“I…” one woman said, looking at her colleagues, “we lived through that.”   She paused.

“What was it like?”   It was probably not a politically correct question, as Germans tend to be very sensitive about that era of history.   Yet I was curious.   My German Professor in college, Gerhard Schumutterer, had been in the Germany army in WWII.    We would ask him what he had thought about Hitler and what it was like to be in the German army.   I don’t think we realized how sensitive such inquiries were.   He’d answer patiently, noting that while he believed at the time Germany was right, he had been living in New Zealand with his missionary parents when he was called to the army.

My old German Prof, Gerhard Schmutterer (1919 – 2005), who I thank for getting me to fall in love with the German language and culture.

His father had connections in the Lutheran church and arranged to have him come study at Augustana College in Sioux Falls (where he would later teach until he retired) right after the war.    He said the first night he arrived he was tired and taken to his new dorm room.  Turns out the next day was a big football game with South Dakota State University.   The tradition then was that SDSU students would come and try to break into dorm rooms and paint the faces of students red (SDSU’s colors were red and white).    He hadn’t locked his door, heard screaming, leapt up remembering his time fighting on the Russian front, and when they broke into his room and painted his face red he was sure the Russians had invaded.   What a way to wake up in a new country!

So I wanted to hear the experiences of these women as we traveled across Germany on a non-descript winter day.   The most engaging and insightful woman told me how she was born in Lotsch, Germany and her parents had been supporters of the Catholic party and not too enthused about Hitler.   Yet, she recounted how under the Nazis the economy boomed and pretty soon Germans felt proud be German again.

Raised to be patriotic and proud of their country, most Germans thought it self-evident they were on the side of good in World War II

The others agreed — the newsreels at the cinemas would compare Germany’s economic growth in the mid-thirties with the depression in the West, and many Germans felt that they were unified and moving forward.   Other voices were silenced.    One woman recounted how her brother became an enthusiastic member of the Hitler youth, and though he was young wanted to fight to the very end when the war was finally over.   “He never fully recovered,” she said, “he still deep down is a Nazi.”

They started talking with each other, stories about that era – rationing, what happened in the schools, what their parents were doing, friends they lost and how convinced they were that the war had been forced on Germany because others were jealous of their economic success.   One talked about a priest who was genuinely conflicted, believing in Germany and disliking the war and censorship.

They told me of how hard it was after the war, how one who lived in the East hid in a haystack from Russian soldiers who were raping German women and girls.   They talked about how unreal it seemed.   Propaganda had convinced them of their superiority, but now allied troops occupied their towns.

I asked about the holocaust.   One woman insisted it was a shock to her and if she had known she never would have supported the war.  Another woman was more sober.  “I didn’t know about it,” she said, “but I knew Jewish people were disappearing.   People said they were immigrating, not wanting to be part of the National Socialist state.   I think we believed that because we wanted to.  But we could have known.   All the signs were there.   We closed our eyes.”

The first woman disagreed, but the other nodded her head.   They were clearly uncomfortable.   I realized that their war experiences were not that much different than those of the French or British — citizens are brought along for the ride, manipulated and used by leaders with their own agendas.

Now high speed trains are comfortable and open. I miss the old compartments.

They exited in Dortmund.   As they got off the train one of them grabbed my arm.  “I have never talked about this in this way or in so much detail.   Not even with my children or grandchildren.”    I nodded, unsure what to say.   “Thanks, I’ve enjoyed the conversation,” I responded.  She smiled.   “Enjoyed?”   She smiled again, shaking her head, “have a wonderful time in Germany, I’m so glad we had a chance to talk.”

I watched them get off the train and walk away as the train left the station.   I thought about my German professor, and how thankful I was that he inspired me to learn the German language.   Without that, I could never have had that kind of conversation.    I also realized that history looks clear in hindsight, but while it unfolds there are numerous shades of gray.    I can’t blame them for not seeing the evil that Hitler represented, nor can I be confident any of us won’t be fooled by someone who promises prosperity and claims war is being forced on us.