Street Art in Bologna, Italy

Bologna, also known as the Red City, is famous for its many rust-colored buildings, small alleyways, and of course porticoes, and even though the town has plenty of old-time charm, it also offers plenty of modern street art in some parts of town. Many of the pieces are large and intricate and much more than a quick tag and dash (although there are plenty of tags around the city as well).

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A small street with the typical architecture and already some graffiti.

Many of the pieces I found in the university quarter of town are large and intricate:

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Many of the pieces are entertaining and do not offer political comments (at least not as far as I could gather):

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The piece is close to four meters tall.

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A large doorway enhanced by art.

However, some pieces do seem to include more obvious messages, which were still lost on me (but I did appreciate the details in the pieces):

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Several pieces spell their message out rather clearly:

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Technology is phallocentric

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While many of the pieces are painted or sprayed onto the walls and doors,  a few of the pieces are also pasted and hung like wallpaper:

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And then there are murals that cover half a building/block:

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If you are in Bologna, look for more than old churches and palazzi. As I explore more parts of the city over the next few days and weeks, I am curious to find out if more large-scale art pieces exist outside of the university quarter.

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Enchantment: Impressions of Venice

I was not sure what to expect of Venice; I was not that excited to go and see it. I thought I already knew it well enough even though I had never visited since pictures and descriptions of Venice abound. How could Venice surprise me if I had seen plenty of pictures of it on Instagram and Pinterest, in commercials, and as cheap posters of romantic sunsets over the town?

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Sun Setting over Venice and Campanile di San Marco

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Sunset in Venice

 

But even with this lack of excitement – or maybe because of it – Venice surprised me and turned out to be one of my favorite towns in Italy. I was sure this would not happen – it was too touristy after all, but it did enchant me. If I thought Florence was difficult to describe (see previous post), Venice and its surprising appeal seems even more difficult to put into words.

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A View of a Canal in Venice

 

Venice is too well-known even to those that have never visited and it has inspired plenty of artists. As American writer Henry James in his Italian Hours addresses this issue, “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and you will find three or four high-coloured ‘views’ of it.” So how can this city still be surprising and enchanting? Isn’t the unexpected or novelty truly enchanting? Even though we think we know Venice even if we have never visited, Venice is difficult to compare and to completely “get.” German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe mentions in Italian Journey that “Venice can only be compared with itself. The large canal, winding like a serpent, yields to no street in the world, and nothing can be put by the side of the space in front of St. Mark’s square – I mean that great mirror of water.” Venice is a “strange island-city, this beaver-like republic” (Goethe).

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Piazza San Marco with the Basilica di San Marco and Campanile

 

This strangeness and the city’s many sides accentuated by the quick change of light and reflection in the water are some of the reasons for Venice’s charm. It is hard to forget this city. As James explains, Venice – “the creature varies like a nervous woman, whom you know only when you know all the aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents. You become extraordinarily fond …. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair.”

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The Top of Basilica di San Marco in Venice

One of the many charms is of course the water, the many canals and the numerous small steeply-curved bridges across them. Venice without the water would still be interesting but not as unique. The water reflects the light, the colors, and the mood; it prohibits the use of cars and Vespas and thus creates a quietness that does not exist in any other city.

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Small Canal and Bridge in Venice

What can be more stereotypically touristy than a gondola ride? But if in Venice and a tourist, I felt I had to give in and hire a gondola. And once I again I did not expect much; after all, it was just a small boat. And once again Venice and its experiences surprised me. The gondola ride was one of the highlights of the weekend, maybe because it was still early and we stayed mostly in small canals: “The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash in the stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back…. The pink of the old wall seems to fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water. …On the other side of this small water-way is a great shabby facade of Gothic windows and balconies – balconies on which dirty clothes are hung and under which a cavernous-looking doorway opens from a low flight of slimy water-steps. It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting” (James).

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Gondola Passing through a Small Bridge in Venice

 

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Gondola Ride through a Small Canal in Venice

 

It does not take much to enjoy Venice; just take the time to look and soak in the light and colors because “the mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough, and generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their profits in this line. Everything the attention touches holds it, keeps playing with it — thanks to some inscrutable flattery of the atmosphere. Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian ‘effect’” (James).

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Gondolas Maneuvering through a Small Canal in Venice

I remember the light glittering on the water, the waves rocking the boats, the water slapping against hulls and steps, and the smell of the damp walls battling the saltiness of the seawater. But it always comes down to the light as “the light here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all. You should see in places the material with which it deals – slimy brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay. Sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision” (James).

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Light Reflecting off the Water – View from inside the Bridge of Sighs

 

Carnevale di Viareggio

Italians really do not worry about punctuality too much – not even when it comes to the end of Mardi Gras/Carnival, which traditionally celebrates the last few days or maybe weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. The keyword is leading up. Here the Carnival parade can last deep into Lent. One of the famous Carnival celebrations in Italy and also shown on TV is Carnevale di Viareggio in the small seaside town of Viareggio about a 90-minute train ride West of Florence.

The parade takes place on several Sundays in a row in the streets bordering the beach. It is a family affair, which means even though alcohol is served and visitors are dressed up and dancing in the streets, the celebrations do not seem to get out of hand (at least at the one I attended). The parade starts at 3 in the afternoon and is a slow procession of huge paper-mache floats, dancers, and smaller costumed groups. The tallest floats dwarf the  five-story buildings next to the parade route. The parade is slow enough that one can walk faster than the floats and the parade route is a large oval, so there is no worry to miss something and always a chance to see a favorite float or group again.

The first Carnival celebration in Viareggio took place in 1873, and paper-mache floats were added in 1925. Just as with the American Rose Parade, artists work on the floats for a whole year. In contrast to the Rose Parade, there are no flowers on the floats, a lot more biting political commentary in the theme of the floats, and more dancers (who are not strapped down to the floats as in the Rose Parade). Unfortunately, my Italian was not strong enough to decipher the political commentary. One float made fun of Facebook and Zuckerberg and seemed to criticize the hold Facebook has over our lives; signs on the float read “Io sono dio” (“I am god”). Another float was clearly criticizing Angela Merkel’s tough stance on the Euro and her/Germany’s influence in the EU. And another float showed Hillary riding a donkey with Bill sitting behind her; the word “Bill” had been edited to now read “Hillary.”

Many of the statements, unfortunately, were lost on me; for example, I could not figure out what the point of the float was that was filled with dancers in a Uncle-Sam costumes.

The official site of the event mentions that over 200,000 people attend the parade, but the event does not feel too crowded or out of hand. Most visitors were dressed up or wore at least a small mask. Plenty of vendors sold cheap masks for a few Euros as well as wigs for those who did not plan ahead. Of course, they also sold bags and bags of confetti as well as spray cans of silly string. The streets were covered with confetti so that they seemed covered in snow. I had so much confetti in my hair that I could not get it all out and still found confetti on my pillow the next morning. There are also food and beer vendors and a few cafes and restaurants, so it is easy to spend several hours at the event.

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Visitors are dressed up as well.

Visitors to the parade need tickets as the whole area is fenced off, but that also makes it easier for police to check bags of visitors coming in and I think keep the event more controlable. The Carnevale is still on for a few more weeks: Feb 21, 2016; Feb 28, 2016; and Mar 5, 2016 in case you want to go. Check the official website to learn more about the event and where to buy tickets.

Gucci Museo in Florence

In 1921, Guccio Gucci (love the name) founded the Gucci company in Florence, so it makes sense for the city to have its own Gucci Museum. The museum is housed in the Palazzo della Mercanzia overlooking the famous Piazza della Signoria with its Neptune Fountain and copy of Michelangelo’s David and close to the much more famous Uffizi Gallery. The museum also includes a very popular cafe on that square.

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View from the Gucci Museo over Piazza dell Signoria

The collection is an interesting overview of the brand’s items from luggage to car to clothes and handbags. Unfortunately, it does not include any jewelry and watches and could also use more examples of scarves.

At the beginning, the company specialized in travelware and accessories, so it makes sense that the collection includes a lot of suitcases and and travel sets, many in exotic leathers such as crocodile or ostrich and of course, the famous logo.

I was surprised to see that Gucci worked with Cadillac in the 70s to create a Gucci model, also on display in the museum.

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The Gucci Model of Cadillac

Most of the evening dresses on display are not behind glass, so it is possible to take a very close look at the craftsmanship of the amazing gowns adorned with feathers, crystals, and more. The dark rooms with black walls and floors let the gowns shine in the spotlights:

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Gucci Evening Dresses

One room highlights the Flora print, first created for Princess Grace of Monaco; another room focuses on bags with the famous curved bamboo handle. And of course, a whole room is devoted to fashion showcasing the brand’s famous double-G logo.

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GG Monogram Fashion

I was the only visitor on a late weekday afternoon at the beginning of February, which is quite different to a lot of other museums in Florence that are busy even now in winter. The museum is rather small (1,715 square meters of exhibition space) and is definitely limited in its offering.  I was more impressed by the design of the display space to showcase the items than the items themselves actually. If the entrance fee were cheaper (it is usually 7 Euro but only 5 Euro on Fridays after 8PM), I could recommend it more wholeheartedly. But the museum has exceptional opening hours (Fridays till 11PM and on other days till 8PM) that it is a great choice if you still feel like seeing another museum but most other museums in Florence are already closed.

For more information, see the museum’s website.

 

 

When the Travel Gods Smile upon You…

When the Travel Gods Smile Upon You, …

 

You make it to the airport without traffic jams even during rush hour;

Actually, you arrive at the airport so early that the check-in counters are not even open yet, but the staff at the business class counter offers to check you in, so of course there is no line;

Your suitcases are below the weight limit even though you packed everything you wanted and never checked the weight at home;

You have time to wander the airport to look at art installations;

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Display about Pixar’s Toy Story at San Francisco International Airport

There is only one person in the security check line in front of you, so you are not rushed to unpack your laptop and take off your shoes (but a smile from the TSA staff is still unrealistic even in this scenario);

The whole terminal seems empty and you find a recliner next to an outlet to relax and charge your electronics;

Boarding is completed in an orderly fashion and no one tries to cut in line;

You are seated in an exit row with extra legroom and no seat that can recline into your space in front of you;

The seat next to you stays empty and you have room to spread out;

The plane is half empty and fellow passengers seem to be in a better mood because of it;

The in-flight program includes several “newish” movies you have not had time to see in the movie theater but wanted to;

The flight arrives a little early and thus a rather tight schedule to meet the connecting flight is now much more relaxed;

Only two people are in line when you get to the passport checkpoint;

You find another cozy recliner and as promised (but never tested before you left the country), your cell phone works in the foreign country;

The connecting flight is also half empty and once again you have a row all by yourself;

Your luggage arrives at the final destination, intact and complete;

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Display/Art at the Sacramento Airport Showing what I Am Convinced Will Happen to my Luggage

You can walk right up to the taxi stand to get into the first vehicle;

There is no traffic to slow your taxi down into downtown.

For someone who does not like flying (especially on those long cross-Atlantic flights) and is too impatient to not be affected by large crowds and odd procedures, such as I, smooth travels cannot be appreciated too much.

Inspired by my recent trip to Florence.

The Definition of Home

Lazy Afternoon at a Baseball Game

Lazy Afternoon at a Baseball Game

I am currently reading a book on baseball and philosophy. I have always been intrigued by baseball’s status as America’s game and what the sport’s traits and history supposedly tell us about America and its culture. One of the essays in the book is “There’s No Place Like Home” by Joe Kraus. The title is intriguing especially for someone who is trying to figure out the concept of home if the town one was raised in and where most of one’s family still lives is not on the same continent as one’s current residence.

Kraus mentions that the rules of baseball are usually taken for granted by those who grew up with this game, but these rules raise intriguing questions if experienced by someone without any baseball background: why do we call it “home”, why does home count only after you leave and return, and why is there also a home team and a homefield advantage if both teams need to come home?

Baseball Batter

It becomes clear that home is surprisingly difficult to define on and off the baseball field. The point that one must leave home in order to be able to come back full circle to home when it actually counts as a run highlights for me the nostalgia that is so often associated with baseball. And it also raises the more general question – do we need to leave home, travel and overcome difficulties and challenges before returning home to be truly able to value home? Do we only then realize that home counts? The goal in baseball is always to get home, so does this also apply to life in a more general sense? Kraus states “you need to know both the idea of home and the real threat of getting out in order to experience the satisfaction of truly making it home” (10).

Bronson, Eric. Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box. Chicago: Open Court, 2004.

Is There a Right Way to Travel?

A Wayside Shrine in the Fields of Upper Austria

A Wayside Shrine in the Fields of Upper Austria

A friend emailed me a NY Times blog about the right way to travel since we have had a similar conversation several times: should a traveler try to see as many sights as possible as if dealing with a bucket list or should he/she go for less but more in depth experiences? Here is the blog: http://nyti.ms/1shXzJY. My friend and I both prefer the in-depth approach, but the topic comes up again and again when either one of us has visitors or when we travel with others whose travel style clashes with ours.

A Church Steeple in a Small Town in Upper Austria

A Church Steeple in a Small Town in Upper Austria

Anna Altman’s blog in the NY Times expressed what I value in travel – I look for a true cross-cultural experience instead of a check mark on a list of sights one is supposed to have seen. Many of the memories I have of a place are not connected to the famous sights themselves but to the small experiences: trying to figure out how to ride the bus in a country where I do not speak the language or can understand any postings, shopping in supermarkets where I do not recognize many of the ingredients, or eating in a restaurant where I can’t read the menu and depend on others to choose for me. These are the stories that I retell still years after the trip while the fancy photos of me in front of famous sights have long been gathering dust.

Entrance to a Hidden Courtyard in an Upper Austrian Town

Entrance to a Hidden Courtyard in an Upper Austrian Town

This is also the reason why so many tourists have seen some famous sights in Austria that I have never seen before even though I grew up there and have been back for many of the previous summers. And I am fine with that because instead of the typical sights, I know every little church in every village I have ever been to and I can tell you about the best place to get a beer and conversation in any of the towns I have been to.