Category: Writing

Roma 2 | Religion, Sacred Belief, and the Symbol

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Problems of proportion evident in my interpretation of St. Peter's Square

Problems of proportion evident in my interpretation of St. Peter’s Square

Route: Metro A line to Vatican City, Piazza San Pietro, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basicila’s Duomo (dome), Museo Vaticano (Vatican Museums), back to Piazza San Pietro.Each day, we are meeting in front of a different Obelisk (a tall square pyramid strucutre like the Washington memorial) in Rome. today, we met at the Piazza of Saint Peter to prolouge our journey into the holy land of the vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica was founded on the remains of St. Peter, as most churches in Europe are, based off of reliquaries or pieces of remains of famous saints or Christians. Having anticipated Bernini’s collonades, the scale did not shock me as much as I thought it would. What did was the ornament. Every single inch of the Vatican, save for the city walls, was covered in some form of ornamental tile, print, design, gilding, etc.

How small is man in the arms of God?

I asked myself this many times today. We took the Metro for the first time to Vatican City, the smallest sovereign country in the world. No passport necessary. Things I learned today:

  • The question refers to scale. In the most important house of God, the answer is, man is tiny like an ant but larger than his own head.
  • Standing/walking in a museum for four hours is more tiring than climbing 323 narrow stairs.
  • The first of many attempts to discern respect and compliance for the beliefs, practices, and places of a religion I do not believe in.

I have never been a religious person. I think that once, I sat in the clerestory of a mass in Edmonton when I was three years old. I remember nothing. I was raised on what my parents might call a blend of Confucianism, Buddhist principles, superstitious idioms, and common sense. Last summer I think I came closest to finding some connectedness to something outside of myself, appropriately named yoga, the sanskrit word for union. But if the closest thing I knew to a place of worship was a hardwood floored, white-walled yoga studio with tea lights capable of holding seventeen people, I was in for a tiny shock in Rome.

We saw a total of 17 churches in Rome, 2 of which were pagan and not used for worship, 1 of which was a synagogue, and 9 of which we entered. Arguably the most important church of all, St. Peter’s Cathedral is purportedly the house of the Saint’s actual remains, which is what sets Cathedrals apart from regular churches: their relics. When you approach the church form the Piazza, it only seems appropriately sized and relatively “normal” a) due to the amount of people swarming the square taking pictures, crossing over, and waiting to enter the church, and b) because you have not walked up to it yet. This is what happens: Churches are interesting places to talk about experience. Their whole purpose is to facilitate a sacred experience through the reenactment and storytelling of previous ones linked through symbolism. But for someone to whom the symbols have no signifier, or at best, one that holds no personal meaning, this experience is not intended. It is instead replaced with a veil of doubt. The interpretation of art for arts sake. Awe and wonder and hundreds of variations of marble making up tens of larger than life sculptures of dead popes. Columns you cannot wrap your arms around because they are meant to wrap around you.

I can see Michelangelo’s Pieta and admire the loving gaze of Mary, but felt more rush, bustle, and elbows than I did trying to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

I can gaze up at the marble baldiccino but cannot take it in without feeling pain my neck, unable to focus on any part of the lovely frescoes in the Duomo because they are too far away.

I can try to enter a chapel to quietly observe but can be shooed out for silence, for sacredness, for my shoulders.

I can walk through a church clockwise and still feel wonder at it’s architecture, it’s affect, and it’s light.

Religion has never embittered me like so many I know, yet I will remain a skeptic because I have found a greater purpose, peace with myself, and learned lessons like compassion and forgiveness without the aid of a book and a priest. I know how to show and feel gratitude to people, to situations, to things, and I thank myself because I know myself. I can take responsibility for my actions in words and feelings and learn from them without a confessional. I admit that I respect other beliefs, but it does not mean I will understand. Yet because I do not understand does not give me the right to disrespect. It was strangely peaceful in Vatican City. Sounds pretty Disney, but in whatever form they manifest, I do believe that at the heart of every religion is love, no matter how wide or honest your columns are.

” ‘Whether or note you believe in God,’ the camerlengo said, his voice deepening with deliberation, ‘you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith… all faiths… are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable.” — Dan Brown, Angels & Demons

Roma 1 | Memory and Monument

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
A sketch of an abandoned capital in the Roman Forum

A sketch of an abandoned capital in the Roman Forum

Route: home to Piazza del Popolo. After visiting 2/3 of the churches along the piazza, took Via del Corso down to the Roman Forum, stopping at the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and Trajan’s Forum along the way. After strolling through the ancient forums, the Coliseum, then home.

This is a Memory Project.

Being my first full-fledged “travelling” experience, I had only the smallest inkling of what I would learn in Rome, in terms of both history and life skills. I think that travelling is a time that we most want to remember but yet we most want to live in the moment. They are some of the times we have the biggest fear of forgetting. An inherent paradox. Memory is a funny thing.

So what if I did not take my picture in front of that monument: does it mean it did not happen? What if I decide not to or forget to document a smile, a shop window, a moment? What if Venice should succumb to sea level rise and my children cannot see it in 20 years? What if I am standing on a place where someone died, someone was born, something was built… but cannot tell? Is it something to be afraid of? A city experienced through the lens of your own eyes is different from that of your camera. It is amazing how differently you walk and experience a place when you are not looking for the perfect frame or at your GPS on your iPhone.

When you walk the streets of Rome, you feel 2000 years of history beneath your feet. But you also feel a city that is forever standing in it’s own shadow, void of modernity, fighting not to put new shoes on. I think that memory is the best way to start this dialogue because, not only is this a test to see how my experience reads a month after the fact, but Rome is a city of memory, not history. I say this because the way we typically think about history — that is, as a chronologically linear series of recorded events — is not only untrue, but is completely stratified and fault lined in Rome. We study Rome because of it’s history, but the experience of Rome is that of a collective memory more than a shared history.

“The memorial function isn’t really central in what buildings do, at least if one means their ability to record an affect, after the actuality of which the building preserves the memory has disappeared. This conscious striving for permanence is the main subject here, as well as some cases of permanence unsought, where accident makes a particular structure the last or nearly the last of its type. When its proper use is discontinued and half forgotten, the building remains to remind the serious student, who learns to read the signs it preserves, of vanished customs or ways of life.” — Robert Harbison, Memory

Beginning with Pope Sixtus the V, Rome was intended to be a built on the principle of axis and node (also known as cardo et demancus). These nodes take on various forms: piazzas, churches, obelisks, fountains. They can all be called monuments, not just because of scale or size, but because of their purpose.

Monument. noun.
a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.
• a statue or other structure placed by or over a grave in memory of the dead.
• a building, structure, or site that is of historical importance or interest: the amphitheater is one of the many Greek monuments in Sicily.
• an outstanding, enduring, and memorable example of something: recordings that are a monument to the art of playing the piano.

We are most concerned with the last definition. Monuments that litter the city date from different eras, have experienced hundreds of years of changing rule, and subsequently have achieved a level of reinterpretation with the passage of time that Henri Lefebvre calls the changing “horizon of meaning”. These changing horizons have more to do with memory and the desire to be remembered/fear of being forgotten than it does to do with history and the so-called “fact”. More to do with a version of history presented then interpreted.

Rome is filled with monuments and a yearning for monumentality. So much so that after two weeks in Rome, I found myself saying “I’m sick of seeing monuments to dead people.” By the time I got to London three and a half weeks later I refused to enter Westminister Abbey. And I had never been to London before! That aside, Rome is also filled with empty memory. Fragments of walls and ancient structures protruding from an unassuming 17th century building’s first floor restaurant.

Tombstones of forgotten people used as walls in a church.

I found myself wondering, during our first walk through the city, how could one grow up in a city like this where your grade three history school field trip is to a fascist monument built by Mussolini to a dead Italian King that interrupts a thousand year old pilgrimage path to the 2000 year old forum? How do you take it all in? And not feel it’s weight? Or rather, some might wonder, how do you walk those steps without worrying that because of you, a tourist, because of them, their rulers, this part of an ancient civilization might not exist next year? My grade three history field trip was to the Royal Tyrell Dinosaur Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, which is even more ancient than Rome. But you cannot walk along the streets in Drumheller and see dinosaur bones under your feet.

The most precious picture of my brother and I that I have ever seen: on a family trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

Our first day in Rome we took the traditional path beginning at the city gate at Piazza del Popolo, down Via del Corso to the Roman Forum. And we did indeed see school field trips to Mussolini’s Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II on the way. These are the foundations (metaphorically and literally) to monumentality.

Piazza del Popolo

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

Foro Romano, the Roman Forum

Our 10 km walk about the city terminated at the Colosseum, one of Rome’s most famous monuments, thank you Russell Crowe.

At the Colosseum, I experienced for the first time, the closing of the gap between my perception of a space fuelled by pictures and Hollywood reproductions and the experienced reality of a place as it stands today. None of what we saw in Rome leading up to that moment I had known about, and in that regard, it was exciting. I could let my mind drift without harbouring preconceived notions of the first of many churches, how the Gap would look housed in an old fascist-era building, or the presence of real Egyptian obelisks in the middle of a public square in Europe. I was all taking it all in, learning.

The Colosseum both exceeded my expectations and disappointed me. In fact it exceeded my expectations was precisely because it disappointed me. Built in the year 80 AD, I don’t know how I could have expected some glamorous Hollywood recreation. Maybe I thought parts of it would have been restored to how it was at it’s peak operation. In reality, more than half of the remaining existing stairs were closed off because they more resembled ramps due to erosion and wear. But it surprised me for two reasons:

  1. It is just There. In the middle of the city, for the past 1932 years, it has just been sitting there. It was not forgotten and rebuilt over like much of the surrounding forum around it. Cars zooming by. Rain falling on an open stadium.
  2. It allowed me to let go of my expectations of a place and to accept the experience for what it really was. This is the Coliseum. And I am standing on it. And grateful to be here.

“As we write so we build; to keep record of that which matters to us.” — Alain de Botton, the Architecture of Happiness


Writing June 1, 2012

I am nervous as hell, sitting in my dorm room eating half an avocado, staring at my 40 pound backpack, wondering what else I can eliminate from it in order to make it less heavy because I know it will only get fuller when I come back from Europe in 35 days.

This is my first trip with friends, i.e. sans-parentals and siblings, to a continent I have never been before, where they speak languages I barely know.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from estatic moments like the realization that I will finally be seeing the Eiffel Tower that has been on my wall and around my neck for years, to moments of absolute fear of the fact that I am going somewhere completely unknown, that we might stay at a dirty hostel, or worse, get kicked out of one because we only booked a 4 person room for 5 people 😉

But the fact that I am experiencing adrenaline and fear even before the trip has started is a good thing. It is, I like to think, my flight or flight response.

I am an extremely organized and prepared person, typically. The last week has given me a run for my money trying to book all my hostels and trains in a few days with seven other people, trying to coordinate schedules and not spend too many hours on layovers, and the like. I have barely had time to reflect on what is actually going to happen. But that’s ok, because I have a 10 hour flight to London and a 6 hour layover before I get to Rome. Lots of time for mid-continent/EU/UK reflection.

There are basically five steps to the planning process that I went through:

1. Research, Research, Research. Research the city you are going to be in briefly. Identify where the central core is. If you are not staying there for very long, you will want to save time by spending a bit more to stay where you are going to see things. Spending 4 hours looking for a hostel in Canada online will save you 4 hours wandering the crooked flooded streets of Venice trying to find an affordable, clean, and secure accommodation for you and your friends for the night. Read reviews! And use more than one booking site (good ones are,, and then try searching for the accommodation’s own website to see if they have any deals)

2. Keep record of everything. I make endless lists. I sometimes make lists of things I have to make lists of. I have a packing list, a Sh** to get done before I leave list, a reading list. This morning, I printed off all my booking reservations for transport and accommodation, and consolidated them into an itinerary complete with contact info, addresses, check-in, check-out, arrival, and departure times, and the likes. I also printed all my academic readings, and will recycle them after I make notes from them in my journal. My hope is that I will lose weight in my bag from books and readings as I finish them and move from city to city.

3. Emergency Preparedness. Numbers for all the Canadian Consulates in the cities I am going to. Numbers and addresses for all of my dad’s company’s offices worldwide. Police, Fire, Ambulance for all countries/cities. Meeting spots and backup plans for meeting friends. Always stay with someone who has an iPhone 4 (yay, iMessage saves the day!)
Italy has experienced a slew of events that have made headlines. A school bombing in the south. Two large earthquakes in Bologna, the centre of Tuscany. Flood in Venice two weeks ago. Huge landslide that almost made Cinque Terre become Quattro Terre. But I am still going. The fear factor is an emergency preparedness response.

4. Packing. As the days went on, I thought of things that I should bring with me to Europe. I wrote them down in a handy packing list categorized into Toiletries, First Aid and Medical (this one was easy because I am travelling with a pharmacy student hehe), Clothes, Shoes, Electronics, School Supplies, and other things like a money bag, plastic bags, bottle opener, earplugs, and Canadiana to trade with other travellers.
Because of pickpockets and moments of un-mindfulness, most of the things I packed are versatile, and not expensive. Although they are perfect and I use them all the time, I left my Oakleys and seatbelt bag at home.

A friend who was over last night told me to bring clothes that could easily transition from walking around all day to going out at night. Although I replied “I don’t really want to go out too much”, he advised me to force myself to. The whole part of travelling where you go out and meet other people from other places intrigues me. Because I love doing that at bars here, but somehow the idea of doing it on an international level scares me a little bit. Plus, aren’t we all tourists, do I really have to look nice and not wear Lululemon all the time? Are yoga pants really socially unacceptable in Europe? Answers to these questions and more throughout my trip!

My Packing List:

– toothbrush and toothpaste
– folding travel hairbrush
– Moisturizer (body and face)
– Sunscreen, spf 30 for face, spf 50 sport for body
– Make up (eyeliner, eyeshadow, lip gloss, cover up)
– 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner in miniscule tiny bottles
– bodywash in another miniscule tiny bottle
– floss
– razor
– shammy quick dry antimicrobial towel and two face cloths
– mouthguard.. because I grind my teeth at night and it really freaks people out when they haven’t heard it before
– kleenex

First aid and medical:
– Bandaids
– Polysporin
– Anti itch cream for bites
– Antiseptic wipes for disinfecting
– Chinese herbal medicine incase I get sick
– Painkillers
– Tums
– Antacids (for drinking)
– Birth Control
– International health insurance

– 12 pairs of underwear
– 2 normal bras and one sports bra
– 1 denim long sleeved collared shirt
– 2 sun dresses and a black skirt
– jean shorts, day shorts, Lulu running shorts, and one pair of Lulu crops (I had to)
–  1 pair of jeans and one pair of Groove pants
– 1 bikini
– 1 raincoat, my North Face shell that packs into a tiny ball
–  1 hoodie and 1 cardigan
– 5 pairs of socks
– 3 Lululemon tanks with built in bras, one without
– 1 white tshirt, one white tank top, one black tank top, one coral beachy nice top
– Pyjama shirt and pants (deciding between pants and shorts was difficult for me because I always sleep in shorts but I think pants will a) protect me from any freaky hostel sheets and b) keep me warm incase the top sheets suck)
– 1 belt and one silk scarf
– Z baseball hat and a more useless beach type hat
– Cheap Urban Outfitters aviator sunglasses that I won’t care about if they break or get stolen

– Birkenstocks
– Toms
– Running Shoes

School Supplies:
– Sketchbook
– Variety of pencils, line weight pens, coloured pens, eraser, pencil sharpener, pencil cases
– Notebook
– Readings.. so.. many.. readings

– All my travel books. I feel I may regret this decision later, but I hope to send Rome, Florence, and Venice back to Canada with one of my classmates, and then keep Paris and London with me for the remainder of the trip
– Angels and Demons, and the Da Vinci Code. Appropriate? I think so. When I am done, I am leaving them on a cafe table or used book store somewhere never to be found again.

Other things
– Money bag that holds passport and money around my neck
– Money
– Big and small ziploc bags.. you never know when you need to separate things and they will come in handy
– Bottle opener.. for fun times
– A bag to separate dirty and clean clothes
– Carabiners for hanging things off of my backpack
– Playing cards
– Travel sized clothes washing material
– My own pillowcase

– IPHONE!!!!!!!! Life saver. So much information can be stored on this as a backup, it can access wifi, take notes, convert currency, be a flashlight… and so much more. For instance, did you know when you are in a wifi zone, you can load a city map by zooming out as far as you need, and it will stay loaded on your phone. In this map later on, even when you don’t have wifi, you can hit the little “find me” button and it can still track you using GPS without data or wifi! Amazing! Next time, I will not bring my top ten travel guides that cost $15 each because they are all each available as an app for $5, and I bet you can actually click phone numbers and addresses and websites and access them on your phone. Amazing.
– Camera and camera charger
– Extra 4GB memory card for camera
– European plug converter
– I thought about bringing a USB with some digital files of your itinerary, readings, and any work that people might really need while I am away. Just incase. But. I think I am going to leave it at home. Take a real vacation you know?

The goods… before packing.

5. Being in the present

Perhaps the most important part of planning is planning not to think about the future. Planning for this trip has made me realize that although living in the present and allowing for serendipity has been a goal for this summer, I am still fundamentally just more comfortable with some things planned. Knowing where I am going to be for how long on which days and where I am sleeping allows me the luxury of serendipitous adventures during my days in the cities I am seeing. Restaurants, sights, museums, and activities are all still unplanned! And that makes me so excited!! All the possibilities… all the people..
A lesson I learned a few years ago is that if you plan everything, you are always on the go thinking about the next activity. No time to sit at a cafe or piazza and people watch. No time to find gorgeous little local digs in cities that make them memorable. Not to mention the stress and disappointment if things don’t go the way you planned.. because the truth about the future is nothing goes as planned. Because it is not physically possible.
I am not bringing my Macbook, but I do have quickpress on my phone, so when I am in wifi, I will try to blog as often as possible with some pics from my phone. Now that I have written a 1500 word blog about this, I feel less anxiety. Phew.