Thursday, June 30, 2016

Next Stop on Our Italian Trip, Pisa

Portofino Harbor Photo: Wikipedia
We said a regretful good-bye to Rapallo, the heaven God built for a few lucky Italians who passed their homes and apartments to subsequent generations, and for those with serious money who could buy the very expensive apartments, condos and villas, upwards of millions of euros. As the last narrow street with beautiful hanging gardens disappeared from view and the blue azure of the Ligurian Sea was no longer visible, we found our well-paved and expensive traveling friend, the Autostrada.

No sooner than we could say, “we are on our way to Pisa in Tuscany,” the state of Liguria had more surprises for us in the form of endless tunnels, the longest one being almost 6 miles long. I thought that we would re-emerge on the other side in another country. By my count, and I could be wrong, given that I was slightly concerned that the GPS did not recognize this new section of the Autostrada and there were no other cars with us in the longest, quite tall and well-lit tunnel, we crossed at least 36 tunnels between Rapallo, Liguria and Pisa, Tuscany.  The constant thump-thump of lights inside the tunnel made me feel slightly dizzy as well and I had to close my eyes a few times. I was glad that my wonderful husband is such a good driver!

This tunnel reminded me of another tunnel we crossed by train into Austria or Switzerland years ago. It was so long that, by the time we emerged on the other side of the mountain, the weather changed from 72 degrees F and sunshine, to blinding snow.
Pisa from the Leaning Tower Photo: Ileana
We finally arrived in Pisa, a seemingly non-descript town of almost 90,000 residents called Pisani. Pisa, a former maritime republic, is well known for its famous Leaning Tower, the bell tower of the city’s cathedral, but Pisa has at least 20 more historic churches, medieval palaces, and bridges across the River Arno.   

Nobody knows how Pisa got its name but it was founded by Pelops, the king of the Pisaeans, thirteen centuries before the common era. As the only other port on the western coast besides Genoa and Ostia, Pisa became a jumping point for Roman naval expeditions against Ligurians, Gauls, and Carthaginians. Ancient Pisani are said to have invented the naval ram. Portus Pisanus became a Roman colony in 180 B.C. and a municipium in 89 B.C., fortified by Emperor Augustus.

In its long history, Pisa received supremacy over the islands of Corsica and Sardinia from Pope Urban II in 1092. Pisa took part in the First Crusade and Pisani were instrumental in taking Jerusalem in 1099. As they advanced towards the Holy Land, Pisani ships sacked some Byzantine islands. The Pisani crusaders were led by archbishop Daibert, the future patriarch of Jerusalem.
Pisani founded colonies in Antiochia, Acre, Jaffa, Tripoli, Tyre, Latakia, and Accone and trading posts in Levant. When compared to Venice, Pisa was a more prominent maritime republic in the 12th century. After centuries of dominance, Pisa eventually lost its role of major port in Tuscany to Livorno.

University of Pisa, which was founded in 1343, is one of the oldest universities in Italy, founded through an edict by Pope Clement VI. Lectures on law had been held in Pisa since the 11th century. The oldest European academic botanical garden, Orto Botanico di Pisa, was founded here in 1544. In 1810, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa was established by Napoleonic decree. Pisa is now a light industrial and railway hub. The U.S. Army has a base between Pisa and Livorno, Camp Darby.
I'm really anxious to climb this elusive Leaning Tower
Pisa is the birthplace of Galileo Galilei, the physicist who uttered the famous words, “Eppur si muove” (And yet it moves) when asked by the Catholic Church to recant his stance that the Earth moves around the Sun. He recanted, but, by stating his famous phrase, he was in essence saying, it does not matter what the church believed, these were the facts.

Among many famous Pisani several stand out:  tenor Andrea Bocelli, sculptor Andrea Pisano, physicists and Nobel Prize winners Enrico Fermi and Carlo Rubbia, poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, physicist and inventor of the dynamo Antonio Pacinotti, and mathematician Alessio Corti.

Sixteen churches are dedicated to various saints, including the famous Baptistery with its pitch perfect resonance construction.  The oldest appears to be San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno, having been founded in 952. An 11thc century crypt is located in San Pietro in Vinculis (St. Peter in Chains). The San Frediano church, built in 1061, exhibits a crucifix from the 12th century.
St. Ranieri tomb Photo: Ileana
Palazzo Reale (The Royal Palace) was the Caetani family home where Galileo Galilei is said to have shown to Grand Duke of Tuscany the planets he had discovered with his telescope.

Located in the Knights’ Square, Palazzo della Carovana has a façade designed by Giorgio Vasari. The Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri church in the same square is also designed by Vasari, with a bust by Donatello and paintings by Vasari.

St. Sixtus church, consecrated in 1133, contained the most important notary deeds of the town of Pisa and hosted the Council of Elders. It is the best preserved early Romanesque constructions in town.

Carved pulpit of the Cathedral in Pisa Photo: Wikipedia
Other famous churches are San Nicola (1097) and San Michele in Borgo (990). The Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in town. On the southern end of Via Santa Maria there is another leaning tower and then another mid-way through the Piagge promenade. The Borgo Stretto is a medieval neighborhood with strolling arcades and the Lungarno, avenues along the River Arno. The Medici Palace bought by the Medici in 1400 and the Palazzo Agostini are fascinating places to visit.

Pisa Campo Santo Photo: Wikipedia
If one is interested in original sculptures by Nicola Pisano, Giovanni Pisano, and treasures of the cathedral, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is a must stop. The San Mateo National Museum displays sculptures and paintings of 12th-15th centuries with masterpieces by Giovanni and Andrea Pisano, Nino Pisano, and Masaccio.
Dave is really brave
Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo exhibits collections of scientific instruments such as the pneumatic machine and the compass that allegedly belonged to Galileo Galilei. The largest cetacean skeleton collection in Europe is housed on the campus of the University of Pisa. And the Cantiere delle Navi di Pisa contains Roman ships, 3,500 archeological excavations, 1,700 labs, and one restoration center.
The Cathedral and Baptistery from the Leaning Tower Photo: Ileana
Pisa City Hall is located in Palazzo Gambacorti, a 14th century Gothic building with frescoes depicting Pisa’s victories at sea.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa Photo: Wikipedia
Nothing matches the majestic but leaning bell tower of the Duomo (the Cathedral) in the Piazza del Duomo, north of the old town center, better known since the 20th century as Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles).  In the same piazza there is a Baptistery where the resonance of the building rivals any opera house in the world, and Campo Santo (the Sacred Cemetery).  The entire complex is maintained since 1063 by the Opera (fabbrica ecclesiae). The medieval walls that surround the four edifices are maintained by the city.

Pisa's Cathedral façade Photo: Wikipedia
The Duomo is a Romanesque medieval masterpiece dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of Assumption) whose construction started in 1064 by architect Buscheto. Byzantine style mosaics decorate the interior. It is safe to say that even the cathedral is leaning but not as much as the bell tower and it is not obvious to the naked eye, given its lesser height and larger surface.

Baptistery Photo: Wikipedia
Rainaldo built the façade of grey marble and white stone with discs of colored marble. Some of the stone blocks have been taken from other sites as indicated by Roman numerals and partial Latin inscriptions which were upside down. The façade on the left also contains the tomb of architect Buscheto.

The massive bronze doors were made by Giambologna to replace those burned in a 1595 fire. Worshippers never used this façade door to enter; instead they used the Porta di San Ranieri (St. Ranieri’s Door) located in front of the Leaning Tower. A beautifully carved pulpit (1302-1310) by Giovanni Pisano, a highly intricate medieval sculpture, survived the devastating fire.
Galileo's incense lamp Photo: Wikipedia
There is an incense lamp hanging from the ceiling of the nave with an interesting significance. It is believed that Galileo formulated his pendulum movement theory by watching this incense lamp swing. The original lamp is preserved in Campo Santo, in the Aulla chapel.
Relics which were brought back from the Crusades can be found in the Cathedral such as the alleged remains of St. Abibo, St. Gamaliel, and St. Nicodemus, and a vase said to be one of the jars of Cana from the wedding when Jesus turned water into wine.

Pisa’s patron saint and the saint of travelers, St. Ranieri, is buried in this church and his preserved body is on display in a golden coffin on the altar, guarded by three men in security uniforms.

Politics intervened and the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, carved in 1315 by Tino da Camaino, was moved many times over the centuries from its original location behind the main altar. The Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not an empire, and certainly not Roman. The sarcophagus is still in the Cathedral but the statues were placed in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

Pisa Griffin Wikipedia
One element rarely seen and out of place on a church stood out, “high on a column rising from the gable,” a modern replica of Pisa Griffin, the largest Islamic metal sculpture known. The original is located in the Cathedral Museum. Pisa Griffin is an 11th century bronze zoomorphic sculpture of a mythical beast, more than three feet tall, “probably created in the 11th century in Al-Andaluz (Islamic Spain).”

As we entered one of the wall gates, after having walked through a maze of narrow streets from the parking lot, suddenly the gleaming white Tower of Pisa (Torre Pendente di Pisa) came into view.  After one’s senses are overwhelmed by its size, the first reaction is amazement that it is still standing and how. 

The construction of the white marble 8-story campanile (bell tower) began on August 9, 1173 and it actually stood upright for over five years, however, just after the completion of the third floor in 1178, it began to lean. The foundation was “inadequate and the ground too soft on one side to properly support the structure’s weight.”  Apparently the foundation was only three meters deep and was set in weak, unstable subsoil.

Lead counterweights 1998 Photo: Wikipedia
It is estimated that the tower weighs 14,500 metric tons. The tilt increased over time until partially corrected in 1990-2001. This correction was done with tons of lead which were buried in the ground. During several visits, I witnessed the steel cables holding the tower and the very large lead counterweights.  Before restoration, the tower leaned 5.5 degrees but now leans 3.97 degrees, meaning that the top of the tower is “displaced horizontally 3.9 m (12 ft. 10 in) from the center” with a total height of 183 feet and 3 inches.

Assunta Bell Photo: Wikipedia
Nobody is really sure who designed this beautiful bell tower. Evidence pointed in the direction of Guglielmo and Bonanno Pisano because a piece of bronze cast with his name was found at the foot of the tower in 1820. Recent studies seem to point to Diotisalvi as the original architect based on the time period of construction and his other works, however, he usually signed his masterpieces and there is no signature in the bell tower.

Leaning Tower staircase Photo: Wikipedia
When the Allies discovered during WWII that the German troops were using the bell tower as an observation post, it is said that a U.S. Army sergeant, sent to confirm the location of German soldiers, was so impressed by the beauty of the tower that an artillery strike was not ordered to destroy such magnificence.

There is a plaque commemorating Galileo Galilei’s dropping “two cannon balls of different masses from the tower to demonstrate that their speed of descent was independent of their mass.”  According to various sources, Vincenzo Viviani, Galileo’s secretary, wrote about this experiment in Racconto istorico della vita di Galileo, book published in 1717, long after Viviani’s death.

Leaning Tower Entrance Photo: Wikipedia
After the metal detector wand check, as soon as we entered the tower, the leaning floor made it impossible to stand upright without great difficulty. We climbed with extreme care the narrow and slippery marble steps, uneven and worn out by the passage of time. I was out of breath and had to stop several times. As we got closer to the top, my sense of balance began to be affected by the pressure in my inner ear. I counted 296 steps to the top but experts say that the seventh floor has two fewer steps on the north-facing staircase, with a total of 294.

External Loggia of the Leaning Tower
“Because the Civic Tower of Pavia suddenly collapsed in 1989, the Leaning Tower was closed to the public and a serious salvage effort was underway. Bells were removed to make it lighter and cables were cinched around the third level and anchored hundreds of meters away. Apartments were vacated for safety.  Seventy metric tons of dirt were removed and replaced with lead counterweights.” Once the salvage operation ended, engineers declared the tower stable for at least 200 years.

Aerial View of Pisa from the Leaning Tower
Photo: Wikipedia
We walked around the wire balcony and took pictures of the area while buffeted by strong winds. And there were more steps to the higher level where the bells were. Once we got there, I became dizzier and was unsteady on my feet as if I was drunk. I held on to my husband for dear life and hugged the wall; even when I closed my eyes I felt that I was going to pass out and topple over the flimsy barrier. I took more pictures and we decided to climb down in the nick of time.  As we reached solid and level ground, a heavy downpour followed the light raindrops we felt while descending. As the rain came down harder and harder, it got suddenly very cold.

We were more than happy to find our car parked somewhere through the maze of Pisa streets. We drove to the nearest gas station and filled the rental BMW with middle grade Diesel for $6 a gallon. We had a quarter of a tank and it still cost 55 euros to fill it; that was $67 dollars for three-fourths of a tank of Diesel. There were higher grades of bio-Diesel but we did not bother.
I really was scared in the Leaning Tower and leaning against the wall for safety
We took the road to Florence, our next stop, through many turns, and many roundabouts, some useful, some nonsensical, in rush hour traffic.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Liguria, Rapallo, and Portofino Bay

Rapallo Castle Wikipedia photo
I was not too terribly sad to leave Turin after a good breakfast in the artsy Holiday Inn restaurant. I was excited to begin our journey to Portofino Bay, Liguria. I was not prepared for the ride, entering and emerging briefly out of endless tunnels which I failed to count accurately.

The narrow strip of land called Liguria is bordered by the sea, the Alps, and the Apennine mountains. It is home to one national reserve, six large parks, two smaller parks, and three nature reserves.  It is comprised of 65 percent mountains and 35 percent hills, extending to the highest summit of 2,201 m called Monte Saccarello.

There are very small beaches but no deep bays and natural harbors except for Genoa. The water plunges deeply along the 350-km coastline. The hills and the sea provide a mild climate with abundant rainfall.

What fascinated me was the fact that Neanderthals lived in the area and were discovered in Loano. Evidence of Cro Magnon habitation was found in the grotto of Balzi Rossi. My husband joked that he felt right at home surrounded by the land of his ancestors, the Neanderthals.

Ancient Ligurians once occupied larger territories as evidenced in the Greek colony of Massalia, the modern day Marseille. During Augustus’ reign, Liguria was a region of Italy (Regio IX Liguria). The Roman ruins of Albenga, Ventimiglia, and Luni prove that Roman roads such as Aurelia and Julia Augusta helped Liguria develop towns on the coast.

Boticelli's The Birth of Venus Wikipedia photo
One Ligurian, Simonetta Vespucci, is said to have been the beautiful model for Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, a masterpiece located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ships from Genoa ferried for hire knights and troops to the Middle East during the first crusade against the invading Muslims. One of the most famous citizens of Genoa is Christopher Columbus, who, on his quest to reach the East Indies for spice trade, managed to sail west and landed in 1492 in the Bahamas archipelago.

The ride from Piedmont to Liguria was one of the most interesting I’ve experienced and not for the faint of heart. From the Piedmont line into the state of Liguria, we passed through one tunnel after another, the shortest one, 150 meters long, to the longest, over two miles. I stopped counting them at thirty; there were way too many and my husband was driving fast. I was distracted by the gorgeous landscapes that emerged in-between the tunnels.
Some of the tunnels in Genoa were simply steel and plastic over sloped terrain; I could not understand their function; perhaps it prevented small rock slides onto the road. The rest were actually carved into the mountain.  One tunnel would end and, for fifty feet or more, light would blind us momentarily with a brief sight of metallic green olive groves, dizzying drops to the azure sea, and then another tunnel would start. Before these tunnels were carved, we wondered how people traveled across this treacherous and seemingly inaccessible terrain to the Italian Riviera which hugs the Ligurian Sea.
Eventually Rapallo, our destination for the day, came into view. Its first settlement dates back to 8th century B.C. The streets were so narrow in some places, it was almost claustrophobic because the buildings seemed disproportionately tall when compared to the narrow streets and sidewalks. Yet there was enough room to drive small cars and to even park or conduct business.

Cinque Terre, Liguria
Wikipedia photo
Many beautiful villas are built in the hills behind the city, offering them protection from the strong northern winds. The town itself has only a 10 ft. elevation from the sea.

As we made our way up the hill on the winding road, we reached our destination, the five-star Excelsior Palace Hotel, one of the top fifty best hotels in the world, perched on the hill overlooking both Portofino Bay and Rapallo Bay.

We settled in after the porter brought our luggage up to the room. The balcony opened to a spectacular view of the Portofino Bay, the infinity pools, the gym, the large indoor pool, and the lower gardens. The hotel stretched over four levels down the mountain through mysterious passageways, gardens, walkways, and stairways with beautiful potted plants and shrubs. Ornate turn of the century antique furniture in brocaded yellows, burgundy, and blue, and a large museum-quality collection of paintings were inviting and comfortable. Marbled floors and amenities that anybody can possibly want, completed the dreamy atmosphere. Dating back to 1901, the hotel hosted many famous people.

Domingo Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, was born in Rapallo in 1817 and died there during a visit in 1894. Ezra Pound, the famous poet, lived in Rapallo between 1924 and 1945 and wrote most of his Cantos there. Max Beerbohm, famous essayist and caricaturist, lived in Rapallo from 1910 until his death in 1956. Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have created the mental idea of Thus Spoke Zarathustra while walking on two roads surrounding Rapallo. Rapallo was even the setting of a crime novel, Elmore Leonard’s Pronto.

I could feel with intensity how the mild climate and the beautiful vistas were conducive to creative writing, painting, and music.

The luxurious vegetation and majestic palm trees shaded the spiral driveway and the stairs leading down the mountain to the Rapallo Marina, the beach, the castle ruins, and the boulevard facing the sea. Splendid yachts were docked in the Bay of Rapallo. Every morning charter boats took tourists on a day-tour of Cinque Terre.

House in Rapallo Photo: Ileana 2016
The bright sun warmed the pink, the white, and the ochre-painted villas, architectural jewels that only an artist with an eye for flair and beauty could create, the lush-green vegetation, and the white marble statues. It was a symphony of color unmatched by the previous slate grey and dark burgundy of castles and churches in areas where fog and rain dominated. We explored the beautiful surroundings and the breathtaking vistas.

We walked to the port down the rocky stairwell and to the Centro of Rapallo instead of taking the car down the winding road and to a possible parking headache. Locals were busy docking boats and yachts. A few girls were sunning themselves on the yellow sand and uncomfortable-looking rocky beach by the old Castello. Parallel to the sea promenade, a few streets behind the Castello was the train station dating back to 1868 and the pedestrian area downtown, with narrow streets reminiscent of Venice. All the gelaterias and pizzerias were clustered in the front of the Bay of Rapallo by the boulevard al Mare. Nettuno Ristorante offered us delicious pizza and pasta with a view.

To counter frequent pirate attacks, the Castello sul Mare (Castle-on-the-Sea) was built in 1551. It contains a small chapel built in 1688 and dedicated to St. Cajetan, a priest and religious reformer born in Vicenza, Italy.

Another famous castle, Castello di Punta Pagana, the seat of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, was completed in 1631. The order of Malta, established in 1099, has 13,500 Knights, Dames, and auxiliary members, and employs doctors, nurses, and paramedics in 120 countries, providing medical care to lepers, natural disaster victims, children, homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, and terminally ill.

Basilica of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, which was consecrated in 1118 and restored in the 17th century, had a leaning bell tower. We prayed and lit a few candles there in memory of my father, who died several months after the communists beat him severely.

Other historical points of interest included the Tower of the Fieschi, Torre Civica (1473), and Porta delle Saline, the remaining gate from the Roman fortification walls.

We slept like babies in the luxurious bed, with the balcony door open, the sound of the crashing waves and the occasional sea gull lulling us to sleep.

The hills of Rapallo Photo: Ileana 2016
After a wonderful breakfast fit for a king, we descended the steep hills, via cobbled roads with hairpin turns and stairs cut into the rock, to the port and to downtown. I was on a quest to take more pictures for my book and to visit more churches. We stopped at Porto Napoleone, a tiny costume jewelry shop with beautiful designs created locally. My 20 year-old earrings had broken that morning (how convenient, said my husband) and I had to replace them for the duration of the trip. The proprietor, Gabriella, was happy to see us, she liked talking to me in Italian and, we were, for the time being, the only American tourists in the tiny city of 30,700.

Shopping in Rapallo
After returning to the hotel, we mapped our next two stops in Pisa and Florence. My husband attempted to purchase tickets for the Leaning Tower of Pisa on line. Like everything else in Italy, technology works intermittently and people take long hours for lunch. Everything takes time to happen unless they are extracting money from credit cards – that happens with the speed of lightning. Italians give a new meaning to the phrase, “Hurry slowly.” But then everything they do create, lasts a long time, and it is always a work of art.

A luxurious spa massage later and a dip in three different pools made the 82 degrees F water feel divine. The infinity pool was 9 ft. deep around the edges, with a spectacular view of the Bay of Portofino. Supper was at Vesuvio, by far the best meal we’ve had in Italy on this trip. The lights were enchanting, casting sparkles on the dark water.

We climbed back to the hotel, careful to avoid the fast driving Italians who could appear out of nowhere. The many lounge areas in the hotel welcomed us back with comfortable chairs and couches; the antique furnishings were bathed in a glowing light, and the music was soothing. We sat on the balcony listening to the sounds of the bay and watching the lights on the few yachts anchored far out in the bay.

We were falling asleep in the comfortable balcony lounge chairs, no mosquitoes to worry about. The full moon cast a white glow on all surroundings.





Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dr. BobbyThompson, Mentor and Teacher of Teachers

Today I remember with fondness my friend, mentor, and professor, Dr. Bobby Thompson. Although I have a very poor opinion in general of the College of Education, Dr. Thompson was a rare individual who really cared about his students and mentored them in research and teaching, offering gentle suggestions and criticism. He is the reason why I became a teacher. He helped with my dissertation research at a time when floppy disks were just appearing and I had to actually go to the library to do searches for $25 a pop and, many times, I would find very little supporting literature but I would come home with boxes of punched cards that contained so very little information yet occupied so much space. A few times I spilled boxes on the sidewalk, having to go back to redo the whole process as it was impossible to put all the cards back in the proper order. 

At the time, when I first started school in the U.S., I was guilty of being just poor enough not to qualify for a Pell grant. Dr. Thompson sponsored, out of his own pocket, the tuition for my first courses. When I had a child and my mom as dependents, I was finally poor enough to receive a Pell grant. Apparently, making a minimum wage of $3.10 was not poor enough. 

I have repaid Dr. Thompson's kindness many times over through the years, mentoring and helping other people pro bono. He would not have accepted any money back, he often sponsored promising teachers. I did not find out until years later, when he passed away, that his generosity paid for my first semester of school. I always wondered who paid my fee. I received a notice in the mail that my tuition was paid in full that semester.

He was kind even when my toddler overfed his fish at the office and the tank became a large mass of goo, killing all his beautiful fish. He cleaned the tank, restocked it and taught my daughter with patience how much food fish actually need and how important oxygen was for their survival.

He and his wife Rebecca babysat my small daughter so I can attend a class or a conference that made me a better student and future teacher. I even cried on their shoulders when things got rough.

There are fewer and fewer professors like Dr. Thompson and they are certainly not found in the vaunted corridors of academia or the College of Education.

May his memory be eternal! His ideas and teachings live through me and hundreds of other teachers who were lucky enough to have met him in college.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Teaching is an Art, Teachers Are Not Made

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”                   – Friedrich Hayek, The Pretence of Knowledge

The week of June 11, 2016 issue of The Economist published a one page editorial on “How to make a good teacher.” It makes a very weak case that teachers can be trained. There is obviously no stated government mold for such a teacher. There is teacher licensing set by the Department of Education which requires teachers to be graduates of the College of Education and mandates that teaching methodology courses and student teaching are part of the College of Education curriculum for future teachers.

Unfortunately, the requirements for subject matter study are very weak and, generally, because teacher pay is low compared to the private sector, the College of Education tends to accept the weaker students who have a hard time passing core requirements classes such as mathematics and science.

Here is why teachers cannot be trained. Good teachers are born, not made. You cannot use a cookie cutter and presto, you have good teachers. What you do get are drones following a set curriculum such as the collectivist Common Core from which they cannot diverge.

You can learn to emulate a famous and successful teacher, but you cannot copy their temperament, disposition, knowledge, rich vocabulary, linguistic articulation, voice, unique delivery, creativity, talent, and love of what they do.

Teaching is an art. You cannot teach art. You are either talented or you are not. Secondly, in order to teach, you must have a strong knowledge of your subject matter. Thirdly, you must like children and love what you do for less remuneration.

You must be patient and able to handle criticism from administrators with an agenda who think they are the solution to everybody’s problem; you must be able to handle criticism from lazy students who complain in order to excuse their lack of effort; you must smile upon hearing criticism from parents who expect teachers to become de facto parents, in absentia parents, and do not care if Johnny learns; they want Johnny to have straight As, a diploma, and many awards he didn’t deserve or has not earned; and you must overlook criticism from the general public who sees the teaching profession not worthy of respect and as a walk in the park. How could you not handle the darling brats guilty parents raise in the 21st century? Last but not least, teaching involves mandated standardized tests that do nothing to reflect what a student has actually learned or knows. Standardized tests just regurgitate memorized facts and dates that are soon forgotten.

Mass government education is just mass indoctrination into a program mandated by the federal government across all fifty states. More recently that was called Common Core, an attempt to raise busy little technical support workers who believe in global warming, communism, and worship Islam, not Christianity.

Government has dumbed down education through the Educational Leadership and Teacher Education curriculum in order to socially promote every student as painlessly as possible through twelfth grade and possibly through a worthless but expensive social studies education.

Insane school discipline procedures or lack thereof for children coming from broken homes, irresponsible parents who don’t read to their children, don’t care if they do their homework or study, dealing with less than mediocre teachers who cannot get employment elsewhere but cannot be easily fired, dealing with teachers who don’t try to teach well because the pay is low, neglected children in households where both parents work and have no time to devote to being involved in their children’s education, high income households who can afford and often do hire nannies and delegate parenting to them, are some of the problems.

Then there is the problem of inveterate socialist teachers who continue the tradition by indoctrinating their own students. It becomes easier as most teaching materials are written and published by die-hard progressives with an agenda to sell books and propagandize as many generations of students into their Marxist philosophical beliefs, turning students against their parents, against Christianity, against their own country, against patriotism, and shaping them into atheistic anti-Americans who are taught revisionist history using Howard Zinn’s progressive interpretation of American history, rewriting historical facts.

Teachers control students’ minds on the average of 6 hours per day. Some students go home to dysfunctional, broken homes, to parents who are unengaged, have their own issues to deal with, and who may or may not care about their children’s education or education in general. No schooling in world and no teacher training can fix that.

More money, computers, books, supplies, will ever improve a child’s education until their parents are involved in their child’s education, and until they stress to their progeny how important, useful, and fun learning for a lifetime can be.

No “eco-pedagogy” or “conscientization” or whatever the newest educational fads the progressive indoctrinators have adopted will actually help students learn. They are just means of brainwashing children into the Gaia environmental movement which promotes non-existent global warming in order to redistribute the middle class wealth around the world in the “social justice” vision of progressivism.

Some poor countries teach children in a dirt hut with no technology, just a blackboard and chalk, relying on an old encyclopedia and a good math book.  No brainwashing, just common sense, and correct history, and their students are exceptional. Many poor schools don’t have laboratories yet students outperform western students in both science and math, even though they don’t have calculators. And the school day is four hours.

Finland successfully tried the no-technology-allowed in the classroom approach as well while the U.S. is now relying heavily on technology. The more technology we develop and provide to students, the less and less they actually know.

No matter how well trained a teacher may be, a child coming from a broken home with drugs, alcohol, and other issues, has a severely affected ability to learn. It helps when teacher to student ratio is manageable. Class size is important in interacting with each and every student as often as possible. Students will share their problems if the teachers really care and take time to listen.

Many schools are run by administrators and superintendents who are marginal or poor administrators, pathetic leaders who lack the skills, philosophy, and temperament to develop a strong learning atmosphere in their schools.

Selection committees who are tasked with hiring principals and superintendents do not have the necessary knowledge to select the proper school leaders or are hampered by their own political correctness, misconceived ideas, and socialist agendas.

Often exceptional teachers get in trouble with dictatorial administrators who impose their curricular ideas that may or may not work in a specific classroom or a specific group of students. Such excellent teachers are sometimes at odds with their lazier and non-creative colleagues who are licensed and unionized, secure in their jobs, but expend the minimum effort necessary to keep their jobs; they cover their walls with “I love myself plaques” given to them by peers at conferences sponsored by various teacher associations.

Thomas Sowell, exceptional teacher and economist, said, “The great promise of socialism is something for nothing. It is one of the signs of today's dumbed-down education that so many college students seem to think that the cost of their education should -- and will -- be paid by raising taxes on ‘the rich.’"
Apparently, the ‘rich’ have rigged the system so much that nobody can succeed, they were told. But the rich create jobs and lose money and wealth every day. If they have rigged the system and continue to do so, they sure did a lousy job of rigging it.

“None of this is rocket science. But you do have to stop and think -- and that is what too many of our schools and colleges are failing to teach their students to do.”





Sunday, June 19, 2016

Next Stop, Turin

We left Milan, the capital of Lombardy, one of the richest areas in Italy and in Europe, quite excited to reach our next destination. One sixth of Italy’s population calls Lombardy home where 10 million people produce one fifth of Italy’s GDP. We were headed west to Turin, the capital of Piedmont. On this beautiful sunny day, during the three-hour drive on the autostrada, we passed by snow-capped mountains in the distance and luscious green vineyards reaching almost to the road.  Dave flew on the Autostrada in excess of 100 mph, testing his fun BMW rental. We stopped for pictures at the foot of the snow-capped Alps by a fenceless vineyard.

Italians do not build fences to surround their larger agricultural fields. olive orchards, and vineyards but they love tall fences to shelter their country homes and heavy gates with passo carrabile signs and outside speakerphones to protect their apartments and condos in the city. It is always a good idea to look before you walk on any sidewalk as cars are likely to dash out of these inner courtyards when a gate could open electronically at any moment.  Italians know two speeds, fast and faster, pedestrians are expendable. I learned this the hard way in Milan, on our last evening there. A Mac truck decided to turn using our sidewalk since roads are narrower in the city. The driver did not see me nor did I see him, but my eagle-eyed, ever-vigilant husband saw his intentions and shoved me out of the way, into the street.

Furry inhabitants of an old castle
Photo: Ileana 2016
We drove straight to our three-star hotel we had booked on the outskirts of Turin. We were shocked to find a fleabag multi-storied hotel with beds as hard as the rock of Gibraltar and legs of iron. I could smell the mice and the cockroaches. We lost our prepaid $176 and drove to another hotel, a four-star one. When we asked to see the room, we were shocked at the dirty grey walls and stained elevators, but the worst was the bed, a cross between a battle field cot and a summer camp bed. We could not exit fast enough.  The proprietor followed us outside and we thanked him but no, we have back problems, ciao.

The third try should have been a charm but the GPS led us to a village outside of Turin, to the parking lot of a liquor store. I asked the owner if there was a Blue Hotel nearby and he said, he had lived there his entire life and had never heard of such place. On this disappointing note, we lost our way back to the city by Via Tunisia where a scantily-clad beautiful African woman was seated in a beach chair literally at the crossroads in the middle of a grass field, waiting for customers. Further down this road, for about a mile, three gypsy shanty towns were hidden in the woods below.

Once in Turin, we decided to stop at the first American hotel chain we could find; it turned out to be an elegant Holiday Inn for 169 euros per night. It was steep but we wanted a good bed and a large room with a view of the Alps to rest our weary bodies. We got a great bed, a spectacular view, robes, and a roomy bathroom with a large shower and slippers. In the same fashion, instead of shower curtains, we got a moveable glass enclosure straddling the tub that sometimes would leak copiously onto the marble floors.

Superga Hill

Turin, the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy (1861), is located in the shadow of the Alps, on the left bank of the River Po in front of the Susa Valley, and surrounded by the western Alpine arch and the Superga Hill. The Basilica di Superga, a mausoleum perched on the top of the hill, painted yellow and white, built to commemorate the liberation from the French, contains the tombs of more than 50 members of the Savoy family. The cable ride to the top of the hill reveals a large plaque that memorializes the tragic loss of the Grande Torino football team whose plane crashed into the hill in 1949.

Italians are really eco-conscious, much more than Americans are, collecting every last scrap of materials that can be possibly recycled.  Yet their local roads still look grimy no matter how much rain they get. Italians don’t worry much about mowing grass or killing weeds. They grow quite tall on all sides of the road everywhere, including underneath the occasional patches where solar panels were installed.

Italian recycling philosophy reminded me of my behavior when I first arrived in the States in the late seventies when, as a teenager, I would want to wash the Styrofoam containers from McDonalds and the plastic utensils. Why waste a perfectly good container and so much plastic?


After we unloaded our luggage, we drove downtown to see the Centro. We learned how to find closer parking places to our intended destination and, whenever possible, free parking. Parco del Valentino by the River Po had an empty spot. We walked down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and Piazza Castello in our quest to find a pizzeria. Who would have thought that it would be so hard to find pizza in Turin, Italy? But there were few tourists and most places only offered pasta.

Photo: Ileana 2016
Turin is famous for its elegant colonnaded walkways that stretch for miles and for its cinema museum.  This is where the Italian film industry was born, shining as the film production capital of the world for ten years. The symbol of the city is a 550 ft. spire on top of Mole Antonelliana.

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud (Capella della Sacra Sindone), located outside the Turin Cathedral and connected to the Royal Palace of Turin, houses a replica of the Shroud of Turin (Sindone di Torino), the white cloth that ostensibly wrapped the body of Christ. The linen fibers show the image of a crucified man who is believed to be Jesus of Nazareth. To this day, people still wonder if it is real or it’s just a clever forgery, part of a Medieval hoax. The chapel was built at the end of the 17th century (1668-1694) specifically to hold this religious relic.

In a linen shop along Via Roma I bought a bib for my grandson with his name embroidered in Venetian blue, wrapped in a white sack also with his monogram. It was so beautiful, reminiscent of my high school days when we had to sew and embroider pillow cases in order to pass home economics.  I was so excited about my find and so overwhelmed by memories.

Under the elegant green and white colonnaded walkway by via Roma, local women were having a flea market with various hand-made table cloths, wooden boxes, carved alabaster statues, chess boards, handkerchiefs, and other local souvenirs.

Photo: Ileana Johnson Turin Café 2016

We finally found an establishment by the college of San Giuseppe where they were having he famous Italian happy hour appetizer bar with drinks for 10 euros. We were really hungry and we gave up finding pizza anywhere. A miniature Heineken and a Cola Light later, made the bite size delicious appetizers taste even better. We sat outdoors, in the famous colonnaded walkways.  The sour waitress did not spoil our excitement. She was unhappy about having to exchange our large euro denomination but did not take credit cards. The tiny 6 oz. beers and drinks were 5 euros for happy hour. I cannot imagine what they must have cost at other times.

River Po, Turin Photo: Ileana 2016

People-watching is a wonderful pastime for Italians. We were hard-pressed to watch many people in Turin other than the locals because tourism was down significantly and especially American tourism. It was getting dark and we had to contend with a 12-block return to our metered parking which we overstayed for sure. Luckily, the ticket police was even lazier than we were or perhaps they stopped giving tickets after five.

I don’t know why, the entire time we were in Turin, the name of the movie and the car model, Gran Torino, stuck in my head.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Breakfast Fit for a Queen

Having breakfast in a five star Italian hotel was a unique artistic experience – they left nothing to chance. Tables were decorated with crisp embroidered linens, pressed and starched to perfection, with small arrangements of fresh flowers on every table. Artsy clear vases filled with oranges or lemons added a touch of classy color to the marbled floors.   

Breakfast area fit for a queen
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The antique chairs were decorated with cotton brocade, not a wrinkle or stain in sight; the covers were removed after breakfast. The large bay windows overlooked layered terraces with exotic potted plants, orange and lemon trees, lounge chairs with umbrellas, and verdant gardens. Blooming plants and bushes I’ve never seen before were overwhelming my senses.

Lemons Photo: Ileana Johnson
The food was an assortment of breakfast items fit for a queen, artfully displayed by a chef – from yogurt, compote, Italian prunes, peeled fruits, real scrambled eggs, crepes, boiled eggs, panna cotta, chopped vegetables, cereals, rice milk, soy milk, cow’s milk, to an espresso machine that made every type of coffee sophisticated palates might desire; fresh squeezed juices, cheeses, rolls, croissants, and miniature coffee desserts completed the elegant tables. And the hot chocolate was so thick that it looked like molten chocolate lava. I had to add lots of milk to make it more palatable to me. A basket of exotic teas and a silver pitcher filled with hot water invited us to a steaming porcelain cup of tea.

Galleria Photo: Ileana 2016
It was cold outside, in the low fifties, damp and drizzly Milanese weather.  I had a cashmere sweater on layered with a cotton t-shirt but it was not warm enough. It was a good day for museum hopping and window shopping.

I picked a tie in a silk boutique for my hubby.  Another boutique that was moving from the Galleria to another location was offering umbrellas, costume jewelry, richly decorated canes, theater binoculars, ballroom masks, silver and gold pieces with ornate turquoise, and coral beads. Intricate cameos displayed the fine artistry of Sorrento’s shell carvers. I have watched one such carver on a previous trip to Sorrento; he had a deep blister in his palm where he was holding a short stick with the cameo on one end. He was carving it with so much focus that the raw skin in his palm did not seem to matter.

Duomo front door Photo: Ileana
We entered the Duomo because I wanted to pray for my family and to light a candle in memory of my Dad. It was even colder inside; the majestic stained glass windows did nothing to increase the warmth of the cold marble floors and walls. There was a service in progress already and signs of Silenzio were posted here and there. Tourists were still quietly milling about, taking photographs.  This time I couldn’t climb the stairs to the roof to admire the flying buttresses and the gargoyles up close. The spectacular panorama of the city that we saw eight years ago would have to wait on this cold and dreary day.

Getting lost was a daily occurrence in Italy; it was part of the exploratory fun. We never knew what we might find along the way. A little old lady walking in high heels but with a cane, asked us if we needed help. You had to admire the Italian ladies’ fashion sense that could not be compromised even when handicapped. Who wants to wear comfortable shoes when they are so unsightly?  We must have looked utterly lost, chattering in English. I explained to her in Italian that we were looking for the metro station. She smiled and told us with a friendly wink that, on May Day every year, all public transportation stops at 7 p.m.  Of course, tourists like us, even though I speak Italian, did not get the memo that on the International Socialist Labor Day, public transportation will grind to a halt and tourists will be stranded miles away from their suburban hotels where prices are more reasonable.

Milan's largest public park Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
We backtracked through the public park, passing ponds with geese, ducks, turtles, and large fish coming to the edge to be hand-fed. A few local kids were playing soccer in the muddy grass even though a sign said clearly, “Stay off the grass.” Italians are obsessed with their city grass, no humans are allowed to pass through, rest, or play on it.

We finally hailed a spotless cab and, for nine euros, it dropped us off by the Duomo again. We were still far away from our hotel. We decided to eat dinner. For 81 euros we had very bland and non-descript pasta at Savini, a great disappointment.  The only thing I enjoyed was the complimentary grissini (bread sticks) that came with the meal and the bottled mineral water. When it came time for gelato, the gelateria had already closed for the night. The town had rolled the streets up. The metal gate entrances to the metro were locked with heavy chains and it resembled a dungeon.

Milan's Duomo at night Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
While in the Piazza del Duomo, bathed in the copious light illuminating the Milanese cathedral, we joined a huge taxi line of at least 100 people, shivering in the damp evening. A few non-taxi Arab drivers, eager to make a profit, approached several people in line and offered to take us to our hotel for 100 euros, about $120. Such an outrageous fee yet there were takers. A few Japanese tourists climbed into unmarked cars, probably so anxious to get out of the cold that they did not care whether it was safe, reasonably priced, or a good idea. We stood in line behind two girls from Boston who were studying in Nice and had taken a weekend trip to Milan. When our turn came, the taxi fare was only 25 euros, four times less than the scalpers had asked. The crabby taxi driver told us very gruffly to get out of the cab, we were too slow for her; she was in a hurry to go back and pick up more stranded tourists.
Part of the taxi line in Milan
Photo: Ileana 2016