E-mail to a student

One of my students e-mailed me to ask about my vacation and Italy. He’s pretty well-read and capable, so I wrote back to him. He wanted to know about Italy in particular, and I found myself warming up to my subject. This is what I wrote.

Dear X,

It’s ok about your anger thingy.  You’ll get over it.  Congratulations on the books.  Are you learning the things you thought you would when you bought them?  How have your assumptions been challenged or changed?  You’ll likely be ready for next year’s physics class in science with your new-found knowledge.  Do some reading up on that; you’re going to need it.  

Italy was amazing.  I spent most of my time in Sicily.  We arrived in Palermo, which is the regional capital, on Friday evening, and spent a couple of hours wandering around the safer parts of the old city — visiting the cathedral and the old Norman royal palace.  You remember the Normans? They conquered England in 1066? Well, they conquered Sicily about a hundred years before that — if they had been united, they might have had the greatest European empire since the Romans, but they didn’t agree to obey each other.  

Saturday we walked around the old market of Palermo — we saw guys selling fish and spices and women selling bread, fish, vegetables and coffee.  I had the best espresso I’ve ever had from one of the market stalls.  It had about 6 tablespoons of really rich dark espresso coffee, and three tablespoons of sugar. 🙂  !  Then we drove down to Agrigento, a city on the southern coast, with more ruined temples than all of Greece except Athens.  We clambered about in the museum there for several hours, and I filled in about a dozen pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the ancient world that fits inside my head.

Sunday, we walked around the temples themselves.  The view was stunning.  Behind us, to the north, were the rolling hills of Sicily, covered with the modern city, olive groves and orange groves and vineyards.  To the south was the Mediterranean Sea, in a state of full froth and incipient storm.  It was fantastic.  I got to read some poems about Greek gods on the steps of the temples dedicated to those gods, and it was tremendously exciting for me.

Monday, we drove (my dad and me) to the city of Selinunte.  Selinunte was a town of 300,000 people or so in the 3rd century BC.  It was as large as Pompeii, and 400 years older than Pompeii.  Only, instead of being buried in ash and volcanic mud, it was ruined by earthquake and war.  I walked down the city’s main street and visited the six temples that still partially stand there, including the temple to Apollo, which has columns so large that you and I could not hold hands with our arms around it.  We’d need at least two more people.

After that, we went to Mazara, where we saw a statue called il Satiro.  In 1998, a group of fishermen hauled this 5th century bronze statue out of the Mediterranean from a Roman shipwreck off the coast.  It’s raised on two black steel rods over a black marble slab, and it’s this lovely dancing male nude, painted green by the ocean and the centuries, and it’s so beautiful it takes your breath away.  He looks almost lifelike, as if he would stand in a different position the next time you visited the museum.  We had dinner that night in a restaurant where they bring you a bucket of fish, and you choose which fish in the bucket you want to eat, and they cook that fish.

Tuesday, we drove back to Palermo, up through the mountains by way of Monreale.  Monreale has a cathedral built in only 4 years, from 1172-1176.  Most of them took centuries, but the king who built this one was extremely wealthy — his grandfather had sacked and conquered Sicily from the Muslims, and all their wealth had passed to him; but being a cautious fellow, he’d buried all the treasure so his son wouldn’t kill him for it.  The grandfather wanted a lasting kingdom, and the best way to do that was to make his son work hard to unite Sicily under one ruler.  The son built the kingdom and enforced peace harshly, and then the grandson got to use the treasure to build on that realm of peace and law — so he spent it on a cathedral. Go figure.  At that, it’s the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever been in. The stories of Genesis and the Gospels are told in golden mosaics on the walls, and the ceiling is painted with patterns in a hundred different colors. The floor is also covered with mosaics.

The part of this I remember most is the old guy with a beard, working with a little tube of glue, a toothbrush, and a 25-gallon plastic bucket of tiny pieces of stone, repairing a piece of the floor.  This guy was trained by another guy, who was trained by someone else, who was trained by someone else, all the way back in time to the master mosaicists who built the cathedral and covered its walls, floors and ceilings with mosaic tiles.  He’s the direct artisanal descendant of the builders, and he knows what he’s doing.  In the course of his life, if he’s lucky, he’ll get to repair maybe forty or fifty square feet of floor. That’s it, and 40-50 square feet is smaller than some tutoring stations.  But his job is to train the next generation, so when the whole scene of Noah comes crashing off the wall, 300-500 square feet of golden tiles, someone will know what to do.

That’s dedication.


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