Towers, Tunnels and Ridges

Every Wednesday is market day in Cagli.  The small town transforms from a quaint medieval village into what can only be described as a merchant’s fantasyland.  Countless 1960’s style white vans drive in town and unfold into tents that showcase clothes, shoes, toys, and other goods.  The vans arrive around 7:30 am or so.  They are open and ready to sell shortly thereafter.  By 9:00 am, the place is bustling with people.  Locals and visitors alike wander through the tents, searching for that deal that cannot be turned down.  The smells of formaggio, salami and porchetta fill the air.  Cafés become filled with shoppers, stopping briefly for a cappuccino or brioche before continuing their quest.  As the town approaches pausa (the time between 1:00 and 4:00 pm when everything closes and shopkeepers return home to eat lunch and rest) the busy market begins to quiet.  By 1:00 pm, most are gone and the town returns to its quiet, quaint self.  The merchants then move on to the next town and they do the whole event over again the next day.

The transformation is impressive–coming and going.

We left Cagli on market day.  We had spent four Wednesdays in Cagli.  Each time, we wandered the market, trying on sundresses and European-style balloon pants behind curtains in the back of the vans, and shopping until they began to break down mid-day.  On that last day, though, there was no wandering, searching, or trying on.  On that last day, we dragged our luggage through the market towards the bus station.  On that last day, we would not get to watch them close up and leave town at 1:00 pm.  On that last day, the bus pulled out of Cagli at 10:00 am.

Five weeks in Italy.

The transformation was impressive.

The first time we hiked the mountain I remember standing at the bottom and hearing the words “see that tree way up there?  That’s where we are going.”  Sun glaring in my eyes, I squinted to focus.  Way up at the top I saw what looked like the small plant in “Horton Hears a Who” (upon which there was a speck with an entire world in it).  Yes. I saw that tree WAY up there.

Getting to the top was no easy task.  It required maneuvering through prickly bushes, crawling on hands and knees, and scaling over rocks on the ridge near the top.  I had to think and maneuver like a mountain goat.  Granted, I am in fairly good shape, and even for me it was a formidable task.  In fact, at several times during the hike, I had to angle my body into the mountain in order to keep balance.  Standing upright and perpendicular to the ground was not an option because if I did, my center of gravity in combination with the slope of the mountain would lead to a downward (instead of upward) motion (in otherwords, I would slide down the mountain).  Hiking was best early (6:15 or so) so doing it required a commitment (especially given late nights on the piazza).

I climbed the ridge three times.  And every time I did it, Emma Grace — at 9-years of age– climbed with me.  Given the feat seemed challenging to me, I can only imagine what it felt like to her.  Each time, the way up proved to be challenging.  Emma Grace did beautifully.  But she is 9.  So an occasional “I’m tired,” “I need water,” “can we stop?” and “this is too hard” did manage to emerge.  I did my best to be patient, but an occasional “catch up,” “don’t complain,” and “no, we can’t stop– we just stopped” did manage to slip out.  Not my best “mom” moments.  It was a hard hike, physically.  And worrying about the well being and attitude of my daughter made it a difficult hike emotionally, as well.  The first two times we did the hike we followed our local guide up the mountain, making sure to stay in his path so that we could move up the safest way possible.  The final time we did the hike, though, we decided to take our time and let others go ahead.  Without trying, we took a new path… more rock scaling than before and a bit more emotional support to move up the mountain given we had been awake very late for many, many nights before.

“They’re too far ahead.  We won’t know how to climb up.”

“Do you know how to get up, mom?”

“What if we go the wrong way?”

“Well, we’ll figure it out.  This is our adventure. Let’s make our own path.”

The Torrione (tower) is iconic in Cagli.  The huge stone fortress (built in 1481) once served a protective function.  There is a “secret” tunnel that leads from the torrione up to the ruins of a fortress demolished in 1502, now the site of an inactive monastery.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the Torrione is open.  You can climb to the top and glance out over Cagli. You can also climb down to the secret tunnel and walk the passageway up to the monastery.  Emma Grace and I (and a few students) decided to make our way to the tunnel so that we could climb the stairs to daylight again (what 9-year old could pass up a “secret” tunnel?).  The first thing I noticed when descending into the tunnel was the temperature change.  Thankfully, I thought, a respite from the stifling heat.  The tunnel was not well lit.  It was musty.  There was an archway that revealed stairs lit only by a small light.  We walked.  Another archway.  And more stairs.  Another small light.  Another archway.  More stairs.  I lead the way.

Suddenly I felt a “whoosh” over my head.  I thought a bird had swooped past me.  I turned around.  Our group quickly realized that the creature that had just swooped over my head was not a bird.  What would a bird be doing in a dark, musty, cool tunnel?  Right.  Not a bird.  A bat.

At that point, we lost about half our group.  Not wanting to give in to a bat, I continued up, hoping Emma Grace would stick with me.  She did.  As we continued up, engaging in a debate about whether bats bite or have fangs, the passageway seemed to get more and more narrow and dark.  At one point it got so dark that I pulled out my phone just to use for some light.  There were a couple “I’m scared,” and “let’s turn around,” comments, but after a round of “my favorite things” we saw a bit of daylight up ahead.  Arriving at the top, we came upon a large, locked metal gate.  The spider webs draped over the iron evidenced that the gate had not been open for quite some time.  Years, we guessed.

“So we walked all the way up and now can’t climb out the other side?”

“Seems so.  Time to turn around.”

“Ok… ”

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens….”

Our last day in Italy was spent on a one-day tour of Tuscany–Sienna, San Gimignano, a Tuscan lunch on an organic farm, and finally, Pisa. I knew we had to do Pisa– how can you bring a 9-year old to Italy without seeing the famous leaning tower?  Of all the things we were to do, Pisa felt the most “touristy” (and for me the least exciting, to be honest).  I knew it was a must, but I was never as excited about it as I was the other things we had planned.  After a long tour-filled day, around 5:45 pm, we arrived in Pisa.  Climbing out of the Disney-like train that took us from the bus parking to the center of town, we began to walk.  We turned the corner onto what is known as ” Il campo dei miracoli” or “Il piazza dei miracoli (the field/square of miracles).

Il campo dei miracole is the piazza that houses four monuments:  the Duomo (the Cathedral), the bell tower for the Duomo (the leaning tower), the baptistry (the place where babies were taken for baptisms as a necessary rite prior to entering the cathedral), and il campostano monumentale (the cemetary).  The name “piazza dei miracole” was first given to the space by a poet in 1910 (Gabriele d’Annunzio) but the space is often referred to as “Il campo dei miracole”–which is a magical field from the book Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi, the author, hailed from a town nearby Pisa).  Regardless where the name comes from, it is named for good reason:  the architectural harmony of the buildings; the symbolic presence of birth, life, and death; and the majestic presence of all four monuments in such a small area is enough to make one gasp.  At least, for me, turning that corner onto “Il campo dei miracoli” left me speechless.  It was an extraordinary site.

The leaning tower itself was impressive.  From certain spots I could not really tell the tower was actually leaning.  Then we walked to another point on the piazza, and it looked like a falling giant.  It amazed me how the view of the tower transformed so completely simply based on where we were standing.

After doing the required cheesy pictures of holding up the tower, we climbed over 300 stairs to the top.  They did not allow bags or backpacks—the stairway was very narrow. The marble-feeling stone steps were so smoothly worn from thousands and thousands of feet traveling their path that they were slippery (slippery enough that Emma Grace had to take of her tread-less flip flops).

When we got to the observation deck, we took a couple of pictures and then were let into the stairs leading up to the belfry.  Ascending from the narrow tunnel, I immediately noticed — at the top of the leaning tower– how significant the lean was.  The entire time I was up there I felt off balance.  Walking around the circular belfry, I found myself reaching for anything to help me feel upright— the protective gate, Emma Grace’s hand, the marble steps– anything I could trust to help me remain perpendicular to the ground, instead of angled like the tower.  The entire world below looked a bit off.  Nothing looked like it did at the bottom.  It was unnerving.

“Mom, uh… this is really leaning up here.  Are we going to fall off?”

“No.. but wow it feels like we are.”

For five weeks this summer, I participated as a faculty member in the Gonzaga in Cagli program.  In two, 17-day sessions, students completed projects in which they had to find, meet, and engage with a local Cagliese in order to tell their story in a web-based portal and printed book.  It was a teaching and learning setting like none other I have never experienced.  It was nothing like my “normal” teaching job.

In my “normal” teaching job, I primarily teach two masters-level classes:  communication pedagogy and qualitative research methods. In both courses, there is typically a moment in which most of the students panic, whether it be over something that has happened on a research project or something a student said to a new teaching assistant or something that simply feels impossible to conquer.  So I bring in “worry stones.”  Worry stones are smooth finger-sized stones I gather from Ocracoke Island.  I tell students that when they are worried they can rub them between their thumb and forefinger as a symbolic gesture of transferring worry into the stone.  I tell them as they do this repetitive motion, to try to let go of the worry and to transform it into trust.

Yet before Cagli, Italy I had not thought must past that.  In my “normal” teaching job, I stopped there.  Transform worry into trust.  Worry into trust.  Trust.

Trust what?

What was I asking students to trust?  Trust that the project will get done simply because of precedent?  Trust their own abilities and knowledge?  Trust the process? Trust their experience?

Trust what?

As a teacher, I want students to leave my class knowing more than they did when they entered.  And yes, I want to use teaching techniques that contribute to an environment in which they can learn.  I want to be clear and organized and fair.  I want students to produce good work. When all is said and done, though, the products students produce will become archived.  Papers gather dust and projects get placed in filing cabinets.  Old teaching techniques get trumped by the newest, “shiny” teaching tool, chalkboards get replaced by smart boards, and PowerPoints become Prezis as the years pass.  The processes and products of teaching will change, over time, and will be left as relics for future teachers and students to admire (or not).  What, then, will endure?  What can be trusted to stand the test of time?

“Salute” in Italian is the word for “cheers.”  Yet in Italy, “salute” is done differently than in the US.  In the US, my experience is that someone will say something in honor of the event and everyone raises a glass and says “cheers” and then drinks, sometimes clinking with the people in proximity and not those farther away.  As I learned from locals, when someone says “salute,” in Italy, you are supposed to clink with every glass in the group and when you do so, look that person directly in the eye. The important part of “salute” is the connection with every individual in the group, marked by a moment of eye contact.  In a group of five or twenty-five, Italians will not drink until they have gone around and made contact with every person in the group.

On our last night in Italy, Emma Grace and I talked during dinner about our “oh wow” moments.  At one point, during our trip down memory lane, I asked her:

“What about the ridge climb?”

“Yes, definitely a wow moment”

“What about it was so memorable?”

“It was OUR adventure.  We made our own path.”

“And the tunnel?”

“A bat almost landed on your head [giggle].  And we sang.”

The most important part of climbing the ridge was not getting to the top.The most important part of descending into the tunnel was not getting through the gate.  Yes, the view from the ridge was spectacular. Getting to the gate felt like a triumph.

Yet that wasn’t what mattered.

Learning can be a bit unnerving.  Unbalanced.  Dark and musty.  Slippery.  Hard.  Staying perpendicular can be a challenge.  Moving away from the perpendicular can be scary. Sometimes you have to turn around.  Sometimes you find a gate.  Other times a ridge.  And other times, you see things like you have never seen them before. Sometimes you feel like you are going to fall.  It can be unnerving.

The end is not the point.  The connections are.

Looking ahead, there will be projects and politics and proposals and procedures; syllabi and schedules and signatures and strategies; conferences and consultations; grading and guiding; budgets and bureaucracies and brainstorming and…


The connections are what matters.

On our last day in Cagli, the bus pulled out of the station at 10:00 am, leaving the echoes of market day behind.

Indeed, the transformation is impressive.  And enduring.

That which matters was not left in Cagli, Italy.  That which matters will stand the test of time, looking ahead. In paying it forward, the potential for transformation becomes exponential.

Il campo dei miracoli.


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