This past week has been extremely busy! We got right back into the swing of things after our trip to Poland. We successfully completed our first art project and presentation, somehow managed to complete our numerous papers, went to baby Luke’s baptismal, and even took a trip to Perugia to participate in the chocolate festival. With all of this going on, we have not had very much time to continue to reflect on our trip to Poland, so this journal is dedicated to doing so. Part of the trip’s main focus was to not only educate the group on what happened during the Holocaust but to also inform us on what the current situation is with the Jews and observe some of the issues pertaining to the Holocaust in the present day.
In one of our discussions, we focused on the current issues in the Jewish square. Dara, our group leader, explained that all the restaurants in the square are owned by non-Jews, yet they still advertise as Kosher Jewish restaurants. By doing so, the masses of tourists that come each year are provided with the false idea that by eating at these places, they are experiencing true Jewish culture. These tourists are attracted to Poland because of their desire to witness the concentration camps and while in town, also enjoy the authentic experience of Jewish culture today. During the discussion, we were asked to analyze and evaluate whether this “false advertising” was good, bad, or otherwise.
I don’t believe there is necessarily a definite answer to this question; there are simply pros and cons that have a lasting effect on the community. One of the many cons is the fact that it is a false representation of the true Jewish community in Krakow. The population of Jews in Krakow is slim to none. Providing a mass of Jewish restaurants, established mainly for tourist attraction, creates the idea that the Jews have overcome the Holocaust and are thriving in today’s society. While it may be true that the Jews have overcome the Holocaust in many ways, their population is still a tragic reminder of their past. After visiting the concentration camps and then seeing these restaurants in the square, tourists leave with the impression that although the Holocaust was a bad time, the Jewish community has recovered and is thriving today. Although the Jewish community does continue to recover each and every day, they are not doing so by these “tourist attractions.” The intentions of these restaurant owners may be pure; however, the act is not. Tourists are coming from all over to witness an absolutely terrible part of history and these restaurant owners are profiting off of it. Is it right to profit off of the Holocaust? It seems a little unethical to me.
We’re in the home stretch now. We have only six more weekends together in Italy. I believe it was one morning at breakfast that we had this revelation, which has resulted in a frantic countdown. It started with Harry Potter, because we were making plans to watch one movie each week, until suddenly we realized that we were “one-Harry-Potter-movie-a-week away from leaving Sansepolcro.” That sure put it in perspective for us. At first we sat in regretful silence, as we thought about how many weekends we spent in the palazzo watching movies and writing papers. Then the panic set in and we looked at a map of Italy, only to realize that we had so much more to see. Then and there we decided to make up for all of that lost time by going on as many amazing trips as we possibly could. As you can imagine, this requires an immense amount of planning and coordination on our part, but through the continuation of the “travel struggles in Italy” saga of my blog, I have accepted the fact that Italy has its own rules when it comes to smooth travels. Namely, there is no such thing. Italy is characterized by chaos, and in a way, unpredictability is the only predictable aspect of this culture.
This unpredictability stems, in part, from the Italians’ aversion to rules and regulations. In many ways, this aversion is a result of the distrust of authority which has developed over centuries as Italy was ruled by one foreigner after another. In an interview for PBS, Italian author Beppe Severgnini described the Italian economic crisis as “rooted in [Italian] mentality” because “the idea of public debt is irrelevant.” Because Italy has been ruled by so many foreigners, the idea of authority has always been an outsider. It wasn’t until 1948 that Italy was able to write its own constitution, and by that time Italians had become very skilled at working around the laws and regulations of their foreign rulers. This mentality has worked its way into other areas of Italian culture in the form of worker strikes, which often affect public transportation. These strikes are normal occurrences, however inconvenient, because at any point in the day, there is a chance that your train or bus will not come. They aren’t quite as unpredictable as we make them out to be because many of them are pre-planned, but as American students living in a small town, we have found ourselves “out of the loop” and therefore somewhat oblivious. A strike (uno sciopero) is usually local and lasts between four hours to one full day, so for the most part they cause only temporary disruptions for travel plans, but for those of us pressed for time to make train or flight connections, scioperi can set off an inconvenient and expensive chain of events.
Luckily we started our series of adventures on a small scale this past weekend, by taking a small, regional train to Perugia for their annual European chocolate festival. Although the train ride was reminiscent of a middle school bus, it was the perfect day trip (short and sweet), and the perfect substitute for the North Carolina State Fair. Motivated and full of chocolate, Leah and I tried to continue this on Sunday by attending the international food festival in Arezzo, but of course there was no bus to take us there. No bus on Sundays. Even if we settle into the groove of academics and life in the palazzo, Italy continues to keep us on our toes by challenging our most thorough travel plans and I’m sure this travel saga will continue into the rest of my journal entries from Sansepolcro.
I spent the past weekend at the Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad in Krakow, Poland. The program is held in memory of victims of the Holocaust and works to overcome discrimination in society today. The trip was very educational about all aspects of Jewish life in Poland, including the past, present, and future. During the trip we toured Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Poland, and the former ghetto. We had the privilege to hear a testimony from a Polish woman who was recognized as Righteous among the Nations by the state of Israel for her help in hiding a Jewish girl from the Nazis during World War II. We attended a Shabbat service and Sabbath dinner on Friday night where we had the opportunity to observe current Jewish life in Poland. During our trip we also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the town of Oświęcim.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was an extremely difficult yet important experience. I came into the trip with many expectations about the concentration camps, yet they all came to be false. I was most surprised visiting Auschwitz I. I was shocked to enter the camp underneath the infamous sign “work will set you free” to see two-story brick buildings surrounded by plants and wildlife. In my mind, I had pictured a place that would match the horrible atrocities that took place there. We learned from our guide, Kasha, that the reason for this was that Auschwitz I was originally built as a labor camp for political prisoners. The hardest thing that I saw were the rooms filled with hair that had been shaved off the people and kept to be sold, and items taken from them upon arrival. There was a room filled with all the prosthetics taken from disabled people who were sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival. The only people spared were subjected to horrible experiments by Dr. Mendel. Kasha told us how some Jewish people at Auschwitz had even been sold tickets for their journey, believing that perhaps their situation was going to improve from where they were living before. People were told to bring their belongings with them so to not alarm them and to give them hope. On the other hand, Auschwitz-Birkenau II was what I had imagined as a concentration camp, yet even worse. The worst part of the camp was seeing the horse stables that were used as barracks. It made it real that the Nazis really did believe and treat these human beings like animals. The camp was massive and almost all of the buildings had been bombed by the Nazis when they were retreating from the Allies at the end of the war. I was also surprised at the amount of graffiti inside many of the buildings.
A reoccurring theme throughout my time in Poland was the relevance of authenticity when studying the Holocaust. I believe that authenticity is essential to the understanding of history. As time passes, real facts can easily become skewed or inaccurate through miscommunication, biases, and differing accounts. In our discussions, we spoke about the difficult question of “whose story is it to tell?” when learning about the Holocaust. To truly understand world events, especially ones that are so terrible that they are unimaginable, they must be told from an unbiased stance that takes into accounts all sides.
When walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau it is easy to simply disconnect from your surroundings. It is natural to try to distance yourself from what you are seeing, but it is important to connect what you are seeing to your past experiences, not only for yourself, but for humanity. The cruelty and horribleness in the world cannot be ignored. All throughout the weekend I kept on hearing people ask the question of “how people could have let the Holocaust happen?” I feel like this is selfish question. My answer to this is to look around at the world post-Holocaust. The world we live in today is filled with injustice. As I write this so many innocent people are suffering from crimes against humanity and are at risk for genocide in places like Sudan, North Korea, Darfur, Eastern Burma, Syria, and the Congo. I came to the program with so many questions about the Holocaust and Jewish life in Poland. While I got all of my questions answered, I have left with so many more.
We are in a fairly unique situation here in Sansepolcro because, rather than relocating to an Italian university, we brought Meredith College with us on our trip across the ocean. Our home here is, if it’s even possible, a mini Meredith campus that is exclusive to Meredith students, with Meredith professors who report directly back to Raleigh. There are pros and cons to this style of study abroad program. Stepping through the doors of Palazzo Alberti provides a sense of community and security that would be difficult to find if you were trying to integrate into a completely new university in addition to a foreign culture. But as soon as those doors shut, you are essentially cut off and sheltered from many of the challenges that come with being out and about in Italian society. In many ways, we might miss out on the chance to uncover and understand another level of the “cultural iceberg” , because we are not interacting with Italian students and professors in all of our classes and around campus every day.
Meredith College has taken several measures to ensure that we get the most out of this as a cultural experience. My English and Italian professors are both Italian and teach at other schools in the area. In addition to having Italian professors, we are starting a new conversation class this week with local high school students. The goal of this class is to practice our Italian with native speakers, while also helping them practice their English. While these are indeed opportunities to improve our communication skills, and they give us the chance to inquire about the Italian education system, they do not give us the chance to fully understand it. Instead, we get to experience the Italian schools from a completely different perspective.
As we have hit the half-way mark in the semester, our schedules have changed to accommodate our new service learning project. The service learning component of this program requires weekly participation in the local Italian schools, as well as extensive reflection on how education influences culture, or vice versa. At the very beginning of this project, my feeling is that how a country chooses to educate its youngest members is the most valuable and telling aspect of culture, because, to put it simply, this is when Italians learn to be Italian. This is not to say that Italians are made, not born, because, for example, some of the youngest children here in Sansepolcro are talking fluently with their hands, before they speak their first complete sentence. However, children learn more than the alphabet during their first few years of school. At six or seven years old, children learn from their school teachers how to be respectful, how to exercise self-control, how to value certain traits over others, and how to communicate with their peers. What they learn follows them through their lives and ultimately builds the next Italian generation. Next to parents, teachers are the most influential part of a child’s upbringing.
It was (mostly) for this reason that I decided to spend my time in the elementary schools. I was assigned to shadow an English and art teacher at a local Catholic school during her second grade and third grade classes. Italian children start primary school and begin learning a foreign language, in this case English, when they are six years old. From what I observed on my first day, they learn English through a series of workbooks starting with level one in the first-grade and ending with level five in the fifth-grade. There are supplementary CDs on which narrators read several activities and dialogues throughout the workbooks. An important part of having us, as Americans, work with English teachers is for the exposure that these students get to different accents. Even when I used basic words that they were familiar with, it was hard for them to understand me because they had become accustomed to hearing their teacher or the English narrator speak. They have not learned English from an American. The language barrier works both ways, however. I can feel blood rush to my face when one of the kids asks me a question in hurried, enthusiastic Italian and I my only response is a confused expression because I have no idea what they just said to me. We’re all beginners here and I’m hoping that while I’m teaching them, they can teach me something as well.
Soon after settling into our new home in Sansepolcro, I became increasingly aware of the many differences between American and Italian culture with regards to something as simple as going out for coffee. The experience of going to a coffee bar in Italy is quite fascinating and has opened my eyes to many Italian idiosyncrasies that revolve around conversation and human interaction. When I visit the coffee bars here in Sansepolcro, I am struck by the amount of conversation and social interaction between people as opposed to a coffee shop in America.
To begin with, a trip to the coffee bar in Italy is always an adventure. There are no shortages of coffee bars in Sansepolcro and we frequent those fascinating establishments almost daily. The closest coffee bar to Palazzo Alberti is Gerasmo’s bar, one of the most popular spots in Sansepolcro from early mornings to late at night. Gerasmo’s is by no means an upscale coffee joint, but it makes up for its dated interior with neighborhood charm and delicious coffee. To the left of the front door, the smooth bar top always has an Italian or two leaning over it discussing the latest happenings in politics or sports. There is a nicely stocked display case full of enticing pastries to tempt each and every customer as well as a menu of delicious herbal teas. A room adjoining the bar is filled with tables and chairs, the walls covered in photographs of the local football team. There are also photographs of groups in the past who have visited Gerasmo’s on a regular basis, including a group from Meredith College. There are several tables outside by the street, so people can sit back, sip their drinks and enjoy watching people stroll down Via XX Settembre. The barista knows the usual order of nearly all the customers because they frequent the shop daily, sometimes multiple times a day. The atmosphere at Gerasmo’s reminds me of a coffee shop back home where the baristas know the customers not by name, but by what they order. At our local coffee shop in Garner, I am known as “Small latte-one shot amaretto” and I know my total before they even punch my order into the register. The friendly environment of Gerasmo’s allows me to feel familiar and more at home here in Sansepolcro because it feels as though I have a piece of my hometown here with me. It seems to me that the Italians see their coffee visits as a regular part of their daily lives, much like in America. When I see the same person daily in the same environment, they quickly become a small part of who I am.
Italians use coffee bars like they do restaurants: as a setting for socializing and people watching. When I walk into a coffee bar in Sansepolcro, I see no one on an iPhone or laptop. The people here are almost always engaging in conversation with one another or simply enjoying their beverage and maybe a delicious pastry. The Italians are conversation-oriented people who are more concerned with human interaction than with a piece of technology. They tend to enjoy and embrace each and every moment. This morning as a sat in Gerasmo’s sipping my cappuccino, I noticed a young man probably my age come into the bar, order his drink and begin conversing with the older gentleman standing near the bar. I do not know if they knew each other previously, but I found it heartwarming to see this young man speak so kindly to the older gentleman the entire time he was in the shop. I never saw him take out his phone to text someone, or even look at the time. The attitude of these Italians has encouraged me to be less engrossed in my technology and social media access every time I go outside my house (or palazzo) and be more attentive to those around me.