6 Things I Learned in Venice

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What a whirlwind it’s been! I’m currently at a Starbucks near Penn Station in New York City, finally having returned to New York City after spending three weeks in Venice and the surrounding areas, with a short stop in coastal Slovenia. (If you haven’t yet, read my blog post on Slovenia, “The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa.”) After drinking delicious cappuccinos and espressos every day, I’ve officially switched back to good ol’ American brewed coffee, something I never thought I would’ve missed!

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1. Walking doesn’t stop you from gaining weight.

I’ve definitely gotten a little pudgier since I was last in the United States. Part of that is my fault… I maintained an eight-day streak of getting one to two scoops of gelato each day, and even when the streak broke, I didn’t give up this Italian gift to the world. Eating mostly various pastas and pizzas for three weeks straight, while amazing for my taste buds for the first week and a half, was ultimately less amazing for my physique. And this is all without factoring in the many Aperol spritzes and glasses of wine I’d have before, during, after, or between meals!

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Everyone had assured me that the sheer amount of walking that I’d be doing would stop me from gaining too much weight. I can emphatically report that that’s bullshit. I don’t know what kind of black magic everyone else has been practicing, but I walked so much that my feet blistered, spent three days literally pickaxing the earth, and yet, I still gained a lot of weight.

Did I maybe overdo how much I ate? Sure. Of the seven deadly sins, I most identify with envy. But for these past three weeks, gluttony started a coup d’état and overtook the throne. And let’s be honest: temperance certainly isn’t the most exciting virtue, especially when surrounded by fresh pasta, delicious cheeses, seafood of all types, a sauce for every mood, and delicious desserts. But you know what? Fuck it. This was my vacation. (Yes, I’m a Stanford student, which is why I considered a two-unit summer course in which I had to prepare a presentation and write a paper as “vacation.”) My goal was to treat myself during this unique experience, and if that means gaining some weight, so be it.

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The whole month of September—when I’m on campus working on my thesis and no one will be around—can be devoted to actually getting my diet and exercise habits back on track. Maybe. We’ll see. I might just ban all mirrors and scales instead.

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2. Catholicism is a perpetual piece of my identity.

The Roman Catholic Church has an obsession with perpetuity. In the Catholic tradition, the Mass connects the past, the present, and the future in its pivotal climax: the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the literal Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Mary reigns perpetually as Queen of Heaven, and she remained a perpetual virgin throughout her entire life, despite her marriage to Joseph—a belief not held in Protestant denominations of Christianity.

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I, too, have this same obsession with perpetuity. Once someone has earned and won my trust and respect, they hold it forever. I crave stability, desperately clinging to my family and my closest friends to keep me grounded during my naturally volatile teen years and twenties. And—as much as I often hate to admit it—I am public-facing; I want to make an impact, but a public one. I want my most well-thought-out ideas, my painstakingly detailed solutions, and the inherently political nature of my existence and my resistance to be remembered. I want to inspire. And I want to make change, but without suppressing my identity and agency in the process.

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IMG_4447 2The Sacraments of Initiation bind an individual to the Catholic Church forever. And the culturally hegemonic role that the Church inhabits in places such as Italy, the Philippines, and Latin America continue to bind individuals who received any of these sacraments to it forever. That couldn’t have been clearer here in Venice, a former city-state and maritime empire whose historical tensions with the Papal States and deeply-rooted (but fabricated) cultural ties to the Byzantine Empire didn’t stamp out its Catholicism.

A part of me wanted to roll my eyes with every church I entered, especially in the beginning of these three weeks, when most of the churches I visited were adorned in gold and worldly riches and often charged for entry. But it was in seeing the Franciscan monastery of San Francesco del Deserto that I felt deep stirrings of peace and comfort. I’ve entertained changing religions altogether many times, with Reform Judaism and Western forms of Buddhism being the top contenders. And I’ve considered being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, which is something that I’m more likely to do than not closer to a hypothetical marriage, partially because the idea of a church wedding is deeply important to me and the Catholic Church remains deeply regressive, oppressive, and discriminatory—although moving in the right direction under the current pope!—in the way it treats LGBT people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But it was here in Italy, in seeing basilica after basilica, small church after small church, and that one, quiet monastery, that I realized how strong Catholicism is as a piece of my identity and cultural heritage.

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3. Archeology is not for me.

I’m an aspiring social/cultural anthropologist, and in many ways, it’s a perfect fit for me: I love people, I love to listen to people’s stories, I want to better understand the social fabric of the world we live in, and I think there’s significant value in qualitative methods of combining social theory and the ethnographic method to do so. But every now and then, I get fixated on other ideas—one of those, weirdly enough, was pivoting to archeology. Maybe, I thought, I could do an archeological methods class in the fall, do archeology in Peru next summer, and pursue a PhD program in sociocultural anthropology that includes strong training in archeology.

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To give you a sense of how ridiculous that is, consider the following facts: I hate bones. Few things bother me more than dirt. My eyes glaze over whenever anyone tries to convince me of how cool a shard of pottery is. When I go to museums, I try to appear cultured by going to the classical art section, but after about five minutes I venture elsewhere. Just like how I’m not meant to be a chemist or an investment banker, archeology isn’t in my future, regardless of how many people assume I’m an archeology major instead of an anthropology major. My course of study is not even remotely like Indiana Jones; if anything, I’m closer to a brooding pseudo-intellectual who lays on his couch reading ethnographies and philosophical works and then hastily writes long essays the morning I have essays due.

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I blame the fact that I have a Gemini Sun sign, an air sign that floats with the wind and is notoriously averse to commitment and personal responsibility. (In that sentence alone, I refused to take personal responsibility for my lack of commitment and instead chose to blame the constellation I was born under!) But hear me out: unlike all the other passing ideas I flitter in and out of, I actually entertained this one!

I did a three-day excavation on the island of Torcello, a relatively uninhabited island in the Venetian Lagoon about thirty to forty minutes away from Venice by boat. The first thing I gravited to? The pickaxe. “I have a lot of anger I need to release,” I told my Italian colleagues and babysitters, who wanted to help me learn but also needed to make sure I didn’t destroy months of hard work. Turns out, pickaxing becomes substantially less fun after each minute of crushing reused Roman bricks in the beating sun. Also, it turns out I’m terrible at actually finding things. My classmates found pottery shards and even an infant skeleton. You know what I found? Dirt. Lots and lots of fucking dirt.

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4. The United States is my home, and it’s where I care most about.

It’s taken a long time for me to truly feel at home in the United States. This country was not built for me, and much of its institutions were built to oppress people like me, from immigration restrictions to anti-miscegenation laws to the outlawing of homosexuality, to name some of the more obvious ones. This country was built on systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, as well as capitalist systems of oppression meant to keep power in the hands of our elite Founding Fathers. But I owe my ability to now consider the United States as my home to the many (mostly black) activists, changemakers, and revolutionaries who have given their lives to fighting and transforming these systems, something which I first began to reckon with and think about more concretely and intentionally this past Fourth of July.

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Even earlier this year, I felt like I was missing an opportunity by choosing to travel the United States for my fieldwork this summer. So many of my peers, both within my discipline and outside of it, took their grant money and left the country, and a part of me had really wished that I was based outside of the United States instead. Funny how actually leaving the United States can really change your perspective on this.

Italy was a tough country to be in. I don’t speak any Italian, so when someone I was talking to didn’t speak English, we had to resort to a difficult and embarrassing game of charades. There are so many things I take for granted in the United States, as small as even just having free water with meals. It’s exhausting to have to constantly think about the whereabouts of my passport, to have a temporary Italian phone number (and to keep getting texts in Italian from my service provider that I couldn’t read!), to not be able to speak about the histories and cultures of Italy with the same depth as I can about places within the United States, and to not know what anyone is saying most of the time.

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I was speaking with my professor on a nighttime boat ride from Torcello after an excavation about this. He’s from Mauritius, attended Cambridge University, and spent much of his time studying in the United Kingdom. I told him that, as much as I love this experience, I realized how clarifying it is to know that the issues within a country like Italy don’t resonate in my heart the same way that issues in the United States do. I have a stake in whatever happens in the U.S., especially within Texas and California. Should I continue down the path of a PhD within anthropology, which I feel better prepared for each and every day, the question of where my fieldwork will be done will inevitably come up, and I know I’m going to stay domestic. Possibly even within Texas, an often misunderstood state that has so much to teach the world about politics, immigration, class status, and the rural vs. urban divide.

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Italy has even clarified what I want to do next summer. It’s certainly too early to be certain, and I’m not even done with my current travels yet—I still have to go to West Virginia, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and parts of Israel and Palestine! But originally, I thought that traveling through Japan next summer would be my goal, returning to the country in which I spent the first three years of my life and exploring its cultural homogeneity and how that influences identity formation, especially in my case as a non-Japanese person. Now, I think I’m ready to travel through the United States yet again. We’re in a unique political moment, and there’s so much that anthropological methods can teach us about the country we live in. By next summer, we’ll have a new Speaker of the House (hopefully a Democrat!), and considering the rise of democratic socialism on the left as a response to Donald Trump, we need bright minds in anthropology to examine our world at home.

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5. I’m (probably) a democratic socialist.

Surprise, surprise! My first day in Venice, while walking through Strada Nuova, a large street filled with restaurants and stores near my hostel, there were people passing out communist newspapers. It was a shock to my ingrained American McCarthyism. A communist newspaper? I thought. What is this ridiculousness? But yes, the United States sits far to the right of the developed world’s political spectrum.

I’ve definitely felt myself lurch to the left ever since Donald Trump was elected president. I supported Hillary Clinton’s run for president since even before she announced her candidacy, and I had absolutely no problem with supporting a neoliberal who was deeply socially progressive, especially on gun control and abortion rights. She was a policy wonk, and at the end of the day, I believed—and still believe—that Hillary Clinton would’ve been a far better president than Bernie Sanders ever would’ve been.

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Hillary Clinton’s loss, which I sincerely believe was an inevitable result of decades of sexist attacks from both the right and the left and the left-leaning media’s attempt to appear “non-partisan” by drawing false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton, ushered in new energy within the left. And as someone who is solidly a leftist, it’s exciting to see left-wing ideas become mainstream and be represented more by someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Bernie Sanders.

Italy helped expand my Overton window, breaking my own beliefs of what I think are reasonable to envision for U.S. politics. I think progressive politics can be bold and unabashed in the Trump era, and like Europeans who’ve been doing this for decades and decades, I’m not afraid to say that my beliefs align pretty strongly with the democratic socialist movement that’s sweeping the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in compromise or won’t vote for more moderate candidates; I’m still a carefully strategic voter who just wants the people who I think will win and will also do the best job in office. But I’m just not afraid to put forward a boldly progressive vision for what the United States can look like.

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6. I’m powerful beyond belief.

I only began to realize my true power when I managed to take a nap during lunch at our dig site in Torcello. (Thanks, chronic exhaustion!) But I didn’t truly realize how powerful I was until I managed to walk away each evening after excavating looking perfectly clean. Ironically, the day I was dirtiest was when I spent an entire day cleaning off bones and pieces of pottery and organizing them for analysis.

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But beyond that, I’ve realized I’m truly a strong and powerful person. I spent three weeks in Italy (and Slovenia) after already spending weeks traveling the United States on my own. I may have packed my summer with more than most people do in a year, but I’m still filled with energy and vigor—although a nap would be much appreciated! Every time I talk to random passersby who aren’t affiliated with Stanford, I always have so much pride in being able to say this is my project. I have a faculty advisor who helps oversee everything and provides support and advice, but at the end of the day, I put in the heavy lifting of coming up with this research, securing funding in a year in which the grant I applied for fell to its lowest acceptance rate in recent history (37%), identifying interlocutors, building relationships with people, and personally planning the jigsaw puzzle of my summer schedule.

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IMG_4245I realize at every step of the way that my natural kindness and charisma carry me through so much. The students who were supposed to just be “interlocutors” have since become some of my closest friends, whether we started as friends or acquaintances. I made some amazing friends in Venice, including one person, Jackie, who has already become a close confidant and will be a colleague and partner this spring as we work to deal with mental health problems at Stanford.

I’ve managed to receive so many votes of confidence from my peers—being asked to join that Mental Health Coalition, being brought in to oversee outreach for the Cancer Coalition, being recruited to fill a vacancy on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, being asked by an editor of our undergraduate anthropology journal to apply for an editor position, and being elected to a third year in a row of leadership within the Pilipino American Student Union. It’s so great to feel like I’ve earned the respect and confidence of my peers and my communities simply by being my most authentic self, all without any posturing, manuevering, or begging for any of it. And having earned that much respect is a wonderful confidence boost to start the second half of my time at Stanford.

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***

So what’s the plan now?

Here’s an overview of everything coming up (this is for you, Mom and Dad!):

  • I finally finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac! The next book on my list is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which I picked up at an independent bookstore in Austin due to the recommendation of a trusted friend.
  • Speaking of independent bookstores, I canceled my Amazon Prime account in opposition to the terrible ways that Amazon abuses its workers and in solidarity with Amazon workers who have been striking in Europe. While you’re at it, check out this great article in Jacobin Magazine about the right to strike—and then cancel your Amazon Prime account too.
  • Today, I head to West Virginia, my first time in the state. I’ll be taking a long train ride all the way from New York City to Pittsburgh before my friend picks me up, so I’ll be having a restful and beautiful nine-hour train ride through all of Pennsylvania.
  • I’ll get to go home to Dallas by the end of the week! It’ll only be fore about four days, but it’s better than nothing! After that, I head to Boston, where I’ll be taking day trips to parts of New England and spending time working on this project in the daytime and hanging out with my best friend since preschool in the evenings.
  • I have one more international trip: Israel and Palestine. Stanford’s Hillel graciously reached out to me about participating in a trip to the Holy Land for non-Jewish campus leaders in order to get firsthand experience with the many perspectives and narratives on both sides of the Israel–Palestine conflict. I’ve been grappling with the Israel–Palestine conflict for a while, and I’m excited to continue clarifying my own beliefs and my own strategies for how peace could be achieved.
  • In a little over a month, I become a student yet again! So far, my course schedule looks busy as always, but I’ll be taking anthropology, history, and creative writing courses, including a course about the history and politics of the Spanish-speaking world taught in Spanish.
  • I spend ten weeks studying at Oxford starting this January! I’ll be doing a tutorial in anthropology and a history seminar on Western thought and the origins of semiotics. I’m working on arranging for a Spanish tutor as well so I can stay on track with my Spanish courses.

Until next time!

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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* Names changed.

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

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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!