Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

***

Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

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