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Winter, 2008:  Stories from a Roman Road

In September, my husband and I took our tandem bicycle to northern Italy. There we did a self-guided tour through Le Marche, Umbria, Tuscany and Liguria, racking up 1500k in mileage. The biking part of our trip lasted 6 weeks, after which we took an apartment in Lucca, a beautiful medieval city and a hub for culture and art.

My husband and I like to travel for long periods of time to truly soak in the ambience of place, as well as permitting us the opportunity to make new friends and hear their stories. As is often the case, there is always something learned. Here are a few things that were new revelations for me:

1) Daunting Dante. As hosts and travelers of Servas (see www.servas.org), we stayed with many Italian hosts. Our first hosts in Italy, were in Venice where our plane set down to begin our trip. During dinner one night, Germana and Stefano told us that as school children, they abhorred reading Dante. However, they said, acclaimed comedian, actor and director, Roberto Benigni, changed that when he created his own passion-filled and pertinent version of The Divine Comedy. This is now available in paperback and will be out on DVD in the Fall. There is also talk of a US tour in English. What I learned: How something is presented can give new life to old material.

2) Frescoe Fantasies. In the course of our travels, we visited many churches and museums. We were overwhelmed by the number of frescoes depicting both religious and secular facets of Italian history. Toward the end of our trip, I learned that frescoes served another purpose in their time, i.e., to tell a story to a largely illiterate population. What I learned: A picture tells at least a thousand words.

3) Wonhundred Words. Our last Servas host was in Lucca. Carmine was a ray of sunshine for us when Lucca was experiencing days on end of rain. Carmine is a psychologist and Playback Theater advocate and he told us many heartfelt stories of how both the performing and fine arts transformed his patients. But the one thing that I will always remember was his simple approach to learning a language. He told us that when he goes to a new country, he sits down and learns 100 words only, i.e., those that he believes he will use the most. He said by knowing these words, people will be happy to assist you further and in time you will build on this foundation, as we did when we were children. What I learned: Sometimes only 100 words can unlock a new world to us.

4) Medici Money and the need for story. How ironic it was to find ourselves in Florence reading the news about banks failing and the stock market plummeting. I had heard about the Medici, but now was surrounded by buildings, sculptures and paintings, all commissioned by them. In short, during the Renaissance, the Medici funded the artists of their time. Several weeks later we checked into our apartment in Lucca and there was an English book that I devoured during weeks of rain: Medici Money by Tim Parks. Strange it was to learn that the Medici made their money from banking and that their empire was destroyed 100 years later, due to the overextension of credit. Many storytellers have been sharing their tales of woes with each other about how they will
survive in our own market downturn, having no “Medici” money to back them. I’d like to take the glass is half-full viewpoint. In essence, storytellers are the best bang for the buck, given that most of us are solo performers. We can build programs on any theme and give us a microphone and a glass of water, we can transport an audience to magical places, with only the limits of one’s imagination. We are an inspiration to all school age children, who someday will have to get up on a stage somewhere themselves and tell some kind of story, whether it be in front of a college classroom or at a board meeting. What I learned: the desire to create is independent of financial rewards.

Wishing you a Happy Holiday Season and hope to see you in the New Year!

Elaine Muray