Saturday, June 28, 2008

Benefits of Useless Knowledge

I have experienced proof that useless knowledge may not be so useless after all: this past Wednesday and Thursday I attended an Apple technology training seminar for education, and at the end of the conference they had door prizes to award for answering Apple-related trivia questions. The prizes included some Apple t-shirts, mugs, pens, and several copies of Aperture, a $200 piece of photo-editing software. Most of the questions were related to content of the training sessions, but some were about Apple’s history. I knew about half the answers along the way, but I bided my time until the end when Aperture went on the block. Then came the question: ‘List all of the big cat names that Apple has used for OS X, in order of release.’ Yes! My hand shot into the air and I rattled off all 7 names: Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard. Most people familiar with Apple can probably name the last four or five, since those versions were all marketed to the public with the cat names, but Cheetah (OS X.0) and Puma (OS X.1) were only used as internal code-names, before Apple’s marketing department picked up on the big cat theme. And so, my otherwise useless knowledge garnered me a free copy of Aperture! Not bad for 10 seconds worth of work.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finding Nemo

I first saw Finding Nemo with a group of friends a few months ago at school, and, though I perhaps did not enjoy it quite to the same extent they did (I *did* like it, just didn’t love it), there was an important message I saw about just how much parents love their children. The Nemo story is about a child fish who gets lost, and his Dad’s quest to find him. His Dad braves the unknown ocean world and goes through ordeal after ordeal to find him, because he loves him so much.

I had a similar first-hand encounter with this love when my laptop was stolen in early April. Within two hours of hearing about the theft, my Dad was already cleaning off the data from one of his spare laptops so I could borrow it for the week, and later that day allowed me to order a replacement with his credit card while we waited for the insurance check to arrive later that week. Throughout the entire week my parents showed me nothing but pure love... Perhaps the Finding Nemo story about a Father’s love is allegorical, too? Hm...

Scary Nightmare

You know there’s something really... weird... about your life when you have a nightmare centered around your voice recorder running out of batteries... Yes, I did actually have that nightmare like that several months ago... So bizarre, but based on how much I depend on that little device, not entirely surprising. This past week when I was in Italy I’d purposely left my voice recorder at home, and it was remarkable how many times I instinctively reached into my pocket to grab it before realizing it was back in Minnesota.


I have a confession to make that should have been posted back in January: I actually enjoy watching hockey! I went with friends to two different hockey games at Olaf, and, despite my [presumed] dislike for all sports, I found out that I was, in fact, having fun (watching the Zamboni was pretty exciting, too). Scary.

That is all.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Italy - Day 9

The final walking-tour day of Rome began with a visit to the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, inside of which lives Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, as well as (of course) a magnificent ceiling painting and other wall ornamentation.

A mere 200 metres away from the church we arrived at the Colisseum, where we were met by Alberto (our tour guide from several days ago). We equipped ourselves with some schnazzy little walkie talkie receivers (to hear his every word) and set out on the adventure.

The tour was fairly quick, the monolithic nature of the building awe-some, and soon we were on our way to the Forum, where Alberto led us around for over an hour, pointing out the historic sights... My memory couldn't take it all, there was so much all in one small place!

After Aberto left us Mrs. Vitt continued the guided tour, revealing yet more undiscovered places in and around the forum before breaking for lunch.

Following food, we came to the Museo Nazionale Romano, another nearby museum featuring an entire floor of amazingly amazing (and by that I mean large and almost entirely complete) mosaics, as well as two floors of various busts and statues, including the famous Discobolo statue.

After a short bus ride, our next stop was the Trevi fountain, where the students were given a brief period of free time to shop, grab gelato, and, of course, throw a coin over their left shoulder into the fountain (doing so is said to bring the coin-thrower good luck in returning to Rome some day; the coins in the fountain are collected monthly and donated to charity). During the free time Mrs. Vitt also acquired a nice looking, red street-Prada purse, over which she remained giddy for the entire rest of the evening.

Our Italian adventure's final landmark visit was the Spanish Steps, where, upon arrival, we were immediately accosted by no fewer than four street vendors selling postcards, roses, noise makers, bubble blowers, and many other random things. After a brief period of time at the steps, our weary travelers returned to the hotel to freshen up and change before our fancy dinner (yes, at least one boy actually wore a suit!).

Dinner was delicious, and emotional. First, the food: risotto, followed by salmon and potatoes... Absolutely wonderful (at least, most of the adults seemed to think so, and I saw more than a few empty plates amongst the kids, too).

During the dinner, we took time to applaud for and thank both Sergio and Michelle for all their hard work in making everything come together so smoothly; To Michelle the group all contributed to buy her a pair of nice earings she had been eyeing a few days ago at the shell store-she definitely got a little teary eyed.

Sergio received a bag of Minnesota trinkets, including a mug with loon picture, several postcards, and a packet of mix for wild rice soup. He took a few moments to offer his thanks to the group, as well, and said he'd truly enjoyed his time spent with us over the last week and a half. The kids all loved him, I think we'll all miss him very much.

At the end of dinner we were entertained by some very skilled opera singers, who performed several classic Italian songs for us while we clapped and took pictures. Following the performance, the group enjoyed our last gelato excursion of this trip and then came back to the hotel to begin the arduous task of packing. Wake up is 6:00 tomorrow, we'll leave for the airport by private coach at 7:15. Our flight is schedule to depart Rome at 10:20.

This will likely be the last update I send to this list, I hope you feel you were able to get at least a small glimpse of what our journey has been like. Thanks for reading!

Quotes of the Day:

"Hey look, that big round thing" - Mari, as we approached the Colisseum

"Now I am full of cholestoral and happy." - Sergio, after eating sushi and gelato

"If you think your country is strange you should come to our country!" - Jenny Finch, after Sergio's goodbye speech

Italy - Day 8

Today has been jam-packed full of activity with few breaks and lots of walking! From our hotel we walked past some nearby Roman ruins, and shortly thereafter encountered, behind an unasuming facade, the impressive interior of Santa Maria degli Angeli church. All the Catholic churches here seem to be both massive and well-decorated with golden borders, marble sculptures and pillars, and large paintings covering every available wallspace. The church was a stunning example of Michelangelo's ability to apply his creative genius to a pre-existing Roman architectural treasure. (Okay, I'll be honest, that last [intelligent-sounding] sentence was dictated by one of the other parents, not me :)

Our walking tour continued with the sight of a giant obilisk, erected by order of Pope Sixtus the Fifth many years ago. Following this we continued to have much fun herding kids across streets on our way to a bus stop.

The next cathedral (Santa Maria) we stopped at was once again massive and beautiful, and also sported some fancy confessional booths with indicator lights to show if they're occupied (maybe they have those back in the states, too, but it was new to me). This cathedral houses the tomb of Bernini, has a ceiling laced with golden leaf from around the world, and is a "potpouri of architectural styles."

On our way to Capitoline museum, we randomly bumped into one of the local tour guides we'd had our first day in Rome. Once in the museum, we saw treasures from the ancient world that many years ago had been deemed by the Pope as too paganistic to continue living in the Vatican. Two giant buildings and two hours later, we braved the slighty rainy Rome streets to acquire lunch, as well as have a brief period of time for shopping, after which we tram-ed to another church, Santa Cecilia. Here the basement was the main attraction, holding the remodeled remains of a very early private house church; the larger church building was then built atop (all of Rome has continued to literally be built up on top of itself, which is why most of the ruins we've seen thus far have been several metres below current ground level).

Rome is so very different from Minnesota, not only in climate, but in that here, merely walking down the street it's nearly impossible not to stumble or trip over the history that's just sticking out of the ground. Actually, I think some people (myself included) have actually done some stumbling... It's neat, though, because the ruins are randomly interspersed amongst the modern buildings and streets.

Our final church of the day began by sticking our hands into the Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth), a literal mouth-shaped orifice belonging to a thin face carved into rock outside the church of Santa Maria. The interior of this church was smaller and less extravagent as the others we'd seen today, the mouth seemed to be the main attraction. We arrived only shortly before closing time and were promptly shoo-ed out of the building.

The next bus ride was a true adventure. First, we had an up close encounter with the police... Okay, it wasn't nearly that dramatic, just that two siren-blaring polizia vehicles passed in between us as we were attempting to cross a street. Second, once we finally boarded the bus (we missed our first chance by mere seconds, and then had to wait many minutes before the right bus arrived again), it broke down, or ran out of gas, before we reached our destination, so we disembarked and walked about 200 metres extra to our hotel. We had about 15 minutes to relax then before leaving for dinner.

The bus to dinner must have been in cahoots with our earlier bus, because it, too, failed to make it all the way to our stop, necessitating a slightly longer walk than planned.

Dinner was entertaining and "different." We were served the closest recreation of an authentic ancient Roman dinner, and during the evening some men dressed as gladiators came out and fought near our table. All the kids had the opportunity to have their pictures taken with the gladiators at the end of the meal, too!

Reactions to the food were overall positive, and I think everyone enjoyed the battles. What's more, the cost of water, Coke, Fanta, and, for the adults, wine, was all included in the [prepaid] ticket price (normally these are each several euros extra at a meal). We were also grateful for something other than veal again :) The food itself was tasty; there was, for the first course, an egg, several slices of dense bread, and two other slices of bread with intriguing Roman toppings... One had olives in the spreading, unfortunately I couldn't hear the full lists of ingredients beyond that (and lots of vinegar, too). The second course was a creation involving fancy white cheese chunks and some bread-like mash, actually quite tasty.

After the meal some of our travelers elected to go out for gelato, but most came back to the hotel to get an early shot at sleep. It's been an exhaustingly full day!

Quotes of the day:

"I love my Mom" - Taylor Besser

"Some days I look at myself in the bathroom and say 'wow.' " - Sergio

"I was laying in bed last night laughing about veal." - Mary Learmont

"Are these for drinking? [Points at clay cups on table; Mrs. Vitt nods] Oh, interesting!" - Mari Marcotte

Italy - Day 7

Our day started bright and early with a 6:30 wake up and 7:50 departure; first stop: the subway! The hotel is a mere 200 metres from a major transit station, so walking there didn't take long at all. Then began the adventuresome task of hustling a large group of students onto and off of the train-very exciting, and everyone made it through in one piece.

We arrived near Vatican city before the masses (we were by no means first, but the line was fairly short to get in). After successfully passing through the metal detectors, we began a several hour tour of the Vatican museum, full of paintings, statues, busts, intricately woven draperies, and fancy tile designs, culminating, of course, in the artwork of the Sistene Chapel. The Minnehaha students were among the most well-behaved in the room, and many watched with mouths agape at the abysmally disrespectful behavior of other foreigners (talking loudly while using flash cameras) - you can tell your student when they get home that we're (the chaperones and parents on the trip) proud of them.

After completing the museum tour we began our ascent of St Peter's Cathedral, climbing tight spiral staircases until we reached an outlook on the roof near the top of the [rather high altitude] dome. The view overlooking Rome was magnificent, unable to be described in words. For me personally, it reminded me very much of the outlook over Paris from the Eiffel Tower (in terms of awe over seeing the spralling cityscape).

After returning to ground level (some students enjoyed a race down the lower, wider staircase), we departed the Vatican and broke for a lunch. After lunch and a short bus ride, we began a walking tour of various landmarks, including a cat sanctuary (made amidst Roman ruins), the Pantheon (large enough to fit a 14-story sphere inside), various other bits of Roman walls and ruins, a public water fountain (okay, but seriously, there was a lesson here, and that is that you need not bend over under the dripping stream to drink, but can place a finger under the faucet such that the water jumps up into your mouth like a more contemporary fountain), and finally the Piasa de Navona, where the kids were given time to check out the architecture in the square, as well as shop amongst the local artisans and painters, all of whom had beatiful works of art on display. Several instrument players also seranaded the courtyard with violin, guitar, and other pleasant noises.

We had a fairly long (and *very* crowded!) bus ride to dinner (keep in mind these are public busses now-we no longer have our private coach for our time in Rome), and then a long, relaxing pasta and veal meal, during which we were serenaded by a guitaer player singing Italian (and some American) songs.

We've got an early bedtime tonight (although I believe the boys are all gathering in Mr. Kozel's room to watch the football game) and a late wake up tomorrow, which is much appreciated after a long day spent almost entirely on our feet. Tomorrow we'll visit at least one, if not two, museum[s], as well as any churches we pass on the way.

Quotes of the day:

"My plan [if we get separated in the Vatican] is to collapse into a heap of tears and call my mommy." - Mr. Nick Kozel

"Oh, he's a real person, he opened his eyes!" - Sarah, seeing a living statue of the Statue of Liberty

"No, they [boys] eat everything, like a vacuum." - Sergio

Italy - Day 6

To all you fathers out there, happy Father's Day!!

After checking out of our hotel, our day began with a two hour bus ride toward Rome, broken into bite sized pieces by a brief rest (and snack-buying) stop along the way.

The first destination of the day was the Ostia ruins, a small Roman city with some similar architecture and tile floorwork as Pompeii. Unlike Pompeii, though, this city slowly died out and was left to ruin over time. Many of the tile designs are remarkably well-preserved, though, having stood the test of time and weather quite well.

Speaking of weather, today was absolutely gorgeous: sunny skies, very few clouds, a nice breeze, and only luke-warm temps (vs scorching heat).

After a break for lunch and gift-shop shopping, we bussed to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, only a short drive away. Here we were given a brief introductory explanation of the cartacomb structure and its origin, then we got to go underground for an up close look. I believe the guide said that only approximately 10% of the tombs remain un-plundered after centuries of pirateering and conquerors, but the structure itself is pretty amazing to walk through. We even saw a few small shrines down there where believers came to hold mass. Quite neat.

After the catacombs we walked a short distance down the street to St. Sebastiano's church (our first official church visit on the trip) - the ceiling paintings and sculptures were remarkable, and again, plenty of pictures were taken.

Checking into our new hotel was an adventure. Because the hotel lacked parking space in front (Sergio knew this in advance so we could plan ahead), we stopped the bus on the side of a crowded street, unloaded extremely quickly, and then proceeded to walk several blocks (or '200 metres') to the hotel ("200 metres" has become our running joke of measuring distances - Italians are not always the best at estimating the distance between two points, so when this was grossly exemplified several days ago [as Mrs. Vitt, Sergio, and I were trying to find a cell phone store], we latched onto the phrase as our default answer whenever anyone asks how far away something is... Maybe you have to be here...).

The walk was quickly forgotten, though, because we have a really nice hotel. Very elegant and fancy (including interestingly shaped rectangular toilets), as well as decent sized rooms.

We met shortly thereafter and walked around the block (200 metres, of course) to an upscale restaurant, where we were served a delicious first course of ravioli and a second course of veal (an apparent hit among the male youth).

After dinner we took a short 200 metre walk to a nearby gelato storefront for a second helping of dessert, after which we returned to our hotel and did bed-checks. Wake up is at 6:20 tomorrow morning, because we're leaving early to go to the Vatican!

We had many quotes-of-the-day for today, so please bear with me:

"Let's go and use the [communal] toilets" - Alberto, our local tour guide at the ruins, referring to the ancient Roman public toilets

"I don't think they [mummies] ever thought they'd be dug up and put under glass." - Ann Bexell
"Yeah they did, they signed a contract." - Nick Kozel, thinking the conversation was still about the recent bodies exhibit at the Science Museum
"What?" - everyone
"Oh, I didn't realise we''re talking about the mummies again!" - Nick

"I love you and I curse you" - Michelle, quoting an ancient story
"That's the story of my life" - Nick Kozel

"We each went home with a piece of the monster [turkey]" - Sergio, telling us about his first Thanksgiving celebration with friends

"BYOM [bring your own monster]" - Mrs. Vitt

"Tony is perfect" - Sergio, then Mrs. Vitt, in reference to the length of Tony's pants

"How can this [beautiful landscape] be in the middle of Rome?" - Mary Learmont

"Nick says ['go ahead and start eating']. That's 's-e-z.' " - Mrs. Vitt

Italy - Day 5

Today we left our hotel in Sorrento at 8:30 and set off for Mount Vesuvius, about an hour's drive away. On our way, Sergio (our tour manager) gave the students a brief Italian lesson, covering such basics as "what is your name" and "how are you?" There will be several more lessons during future bus rides (the sheet he passed out also contains phrases for getting directions, shopping, dining, and various signs one might see on the street).

The road up Vesuvio is narrow and twisty, but our bus driver (Bruno) is quite skilled at his craft and navigated the wind-y path without any apparent difficulty. Once nearer the top, we disembarked and set off to hike the few remaining metres to the pinacle, where we were greeted by a local tour guide who gave us a rather informative, and also very fluent, presentation about the volcano. Most everyone took a few minutes to scrounge and acquire some mineral rocks, then we headed back down to our bus. Unfortunately, the mountain top was engulfed in a puffy cloud, preventing us from looking down onto Pompeii. Alas.

Upon reboarding the bus we once again set out on the road for Naples. We took a road less traveled to get there, owing to the fact that one of the primary motorway exits to the city was closed (confusing normal traffic patterns). Along the way we stopped for a bathroom break at a cameo shell shop, oggling at the beautiful, and also very expensive, shell jewelry.

One interesting phenomenon we've been noticing during our visit is the sheer quantity of trash lying on the sides of the roads, apparently due to innefective (or corrupt) politics regarding trash management... I'm sure Google can tell you more, it's just an interesting sight we've seen.

When we arrived in Naples we split up for lunch and met back at the National Archeological Museum, where we spent the rest of our afternoon touring and absorbing as much information from Mrs. Vitt as possible. Exhibits in the museum included intricate tile mosaics from Pompeii, a large variety of statues and busts, as well as an Egyptian exhibit with a couple mummies. Plenty of pictures were taken, so once we're back you can ask your student to give you a slideshow.

After leaving the museum we traveled to the town of Cassino, famous in history for a crushing Ally victory during WWII. We'll only be staying in our hotel here this one night, and tomorrow morning we set off for Rome!

A delicious ravioli and mystery meat dinner followed soon after arrival (they did tell us what the meat was, I just can't remember right now), and following that we went on a walking excursion in the hopes of seeing some nearby Roman ruins. However, when we got to the gate, the site was already closed for the night, so we brought the kids to get ice cream and then sent them to bed (after a nice little walk back to the hotel - the weather was wonderfully cool and the sky crystal clear).

Quote of the day: (in reference to our lunch)

"It's clearly not fair to make pizza this good!" - Nick Kozel

Italy - Day 4

Today started with a rousing bus ride to the port, where we boarded an island skipper and rode out to the nearby island of Capri. Once there we quickly boarded another boat destined for a small alcove around the side of the island, the Blue Grotto. Here we waited as small, mini rowboats, oared by a crew of one, approached our craft to take on passengers (4 a piece). Once loaded, each of these vessels ducked through a tiny opening in the cliff wall, bringing us into a hallowed out cave beneath the cliffs. Here, in the Blue Grotto, the water is illuminated an incandescent blue color, lit so by rays of light from the sun reflecting off the sandy ocean floor under the island. It was very dark (as caves generally are), but a pretty neat sight.

Most everyone was happy to get their feet back on solid ground (counting the first ferry ride to Capri, and then the long wait for the rowboats while we were already out to sea, we'd been rocking on the water for a fairly long time). From here we boarded a tram that would take us partway up the hillside, and once at that level everyone was given time for lunch and shopping. I don't know where most of the students ate, but the adults enjoyed delicious (and authentic) Italian pizzas at a local ristorante..

Regathering after lunch, we set out to hike up to the top of Capri to tour the Villa Jovis, an immense ancient Roman palace dedicated to Jupiter. The hike was quite vigorous (Mrs. Vitt is notorius for walking very fast, but everyone kept up quite well, even the chaperones), and the view at the top absolutely spectacular!

After walking through the villa, we retured down the hillside for another brief time for shopping and gelato before boarding our final boat back to the mainland. Upon returning to Sorrento, the students were given a rare 2 hour block of free time in town before meeting the bus again. This time was spent shopping amongst excited Italians cheering on their football team in the World Cup playoffs (the game ended in a 1-1 tie). Several of the boys elected to continue watching the game in Mr. Kozel's room once we returned to the hotel before dinner.

For dinner we were given the option of pasta, ravioli, or soup, followed by a second dish of salmon, meat balls, or chicken salad. Following dessert, everyone returned to their rooms to pack, as we'll be moving on to our second hotel tomorrow. Departure is at 8:30, first stop of the day will be Mount Vesuvius.

Quotes of the day:

"Goat children, do you have your tickets yet? Children of the goat?" - Mrs. Vitt

"I'll write [a reminder note] in the dipping sauce stuff... Olive oil... It's been a long day" - Jeremy Gustafson

"Oh for cute" - Nick Kozel

Italy - Day 3

The day began wet and early (it had rained overnight) with a continental breakfast featuring slices of ham, egg, some delicious pie thing, and the kids' favorite: cereal resembling Cocoa Puffs.

We boarded the bus for departure at 8:30 and had an hour long drive to Pompeii, where we spent the majority of our day meandering along the ancient, uneven stone roads, themselves worn with grooves from ancient wheels.

During the morning hours (from 10:00 to noon) we were led by a local guide named Mario, according to Mrs. Vitt, the best guide she's ever received at Pompeii (out of 6 visits with students). With him we saw the city's two theatres, one of the bath houses, the largest mansion/house, the central forum, countless store fronts and several smaller homes, and many stray dogs (not part of the exhibit itself, of course), all sitting calmly under the ever present and watchful eye of Vesuvius.

After Mario departed we took a short break for lunch (and to rest our feet), then Mrs. Vitt continued our tour throughout the back sections of the city. We saw remnants of the Roman aqueducts, burial tombs outside the city walls, the amphiteatre, and we stopped to relax for a few minutes while Mrs. Vitt read an historical fiction story set in Pompeii (on a personal note, it just happened to be the same story that captivated and sparked my interest in Pompeii back in middle school). After filling our water bottles from a Pompeiian public fountain we left the city to be accosted by merchants selling trinkets and postcards, as well as delicious servings of gelato, of which many of us indulged.

A few minutes before boarding the bus, the sky released a rather wet downpour, which unfortunately continued long enough to prevent us from walking to Pollio Felix's house before dinner.

After a delicious double course meal of pizza / rice and fish / beef / soup, students had about 50 minutes of free time before bed checks at 10:00. Wake up call is 6:30 tomorrow morning so we can catch our 8:30 ferry to the island of Capri.

That's the news for today. I'll leave you with this quote of the day:

"If I were an olive tree I would only have been bearing fruit for 4 years." - Michelle Vitt.

"I dream about arm-wrestling large men" - Mary

Italy - Days 1 & 2

If you saw my email a few hours ago, then you know we all made it to Italy safely. We left MSP Tuesday evening and had a roughly seven hour flight to Amsterdam, followed immediately by a 2 hour flight (plus 40 minute runway taxi) to Rome. I'm not sure that any of us slept quite as much as we were hoping/expecting, but everyone arrived in good spirits (and full tummies from several airplane meals)

After landing in Rome we were met by Sergio, our tour manager for the duration of our voyage, and boarded our coach for a several hour commute to Sorrento. Along the way we passed Mount Vesuvius (no sign of smoke for now :) as well as a distant view of Capri (both of which we'll be visiting this trip).

We arrived at our hotel at 22:00 local time, enjoyed a delicious eggplant or turkey dinner (individual choice), and crashed into bed. We'll be up bright and early tomorrow morning for breakfast at 7:30; our bus leaves at 8:30 for our day at Pompeii.


I just got back from 8 days in Italy helping chaperone for a group of Minnehaha middle and high school students. The trip was lots of fun, but I'm exhausted, and it's always so nice to return home. Part of my duties during the trip included writing a daily email to the parents (using a BlackBerry that I rented), and I've decided to post those emails here, too, so you can read all about our adventures (typos and all).

Senior Chapel Talk

I gave my Senior Chapel Talk at St Olaf on Wednesday, May 7th. Word has it it was pretty good. You can listen to a streaming audio feed from St Olaf's website: