Wednesday was our firs day of Betta’s once a week Storia di Parma class in which we would learn the history of Parma and it’s culture. We roused ourselves bright and early that morning to meet Betta in Piazza Garibaldi, the veritable centre of the city, where Betta began the lesson even though 3 of the 7 people in our class were missing! Parma, as many Italian cities, was a Roman city founded in 186 B.C. Parma gets its name from an Etruscan shield adopted by the Romans which was likely called a parme or parma. There are even Etruscan references to families called Parma and Parmese peoples, so the name or the city is likely much older than the Roman city.
Interestingly Rome constructed Parma, and some other cities in Emilia-Romagna such as Piacenza and Bologna (I think), because they built a road from Remini (a coastal city) to the interior of Italy (I think in Milan). Along this road they constructed cities, such as Parma in the Roman mode (with a forum, in a grid pattern, ending at a river, with a theater and an “amphitheater”[really a full theater such as the Colosseum, while the theater was a true amphitheater], shops, basilicas and a main road intersected by ten parallel roads). The main road down the center of the city was the road from the sea to the interior which still exists, and is still in use, today. It’s kind of like the Boston Post road of America but much nicer. Outside of the city, where I live in the Altratorrente (other side of the river), there was a massive camposanto or graveyard. Sweet.
Once Betta had finished giving us the basic history behind Parma we made our way to the national museum of Parma, where they store Parmenese artifacts and historical objects. There is little from the actual ancient city of Parma because of the numerous times it was rebuilt, destroyed, sacked, taken over, built up, destroyed, changed leadership and finally bombed during WWII. As such much is gone and it can be hard to find an archaeological record of the city. We did see some things which were very reminiscent of any Roman city; columns, mosaic floors, vanity goods, sculptures and, of course, tombs. Perhaps most interestingly, and the newest experience for me, was the comparison between a Roman tombstone and the tomb of a Lombardic (one of the barbaric tribes which controlled Italy after the fall of Rome) princess. The tombstone of a fairly common craftsman, one who likely made and repaired shoes, was by far more elaborate, artistic, intelligent, magnificent, splendid and advanced than the tomb (note the difference between a tombstone and a tomb) of a princess 600 years later. As much as I had known that civilization fell down an abyss after the end of the Roman empire I had never seen an example of a “Dark Age” creation next to one made by Romans.
It’s fascinating to consider. How could all of the knowledge disappear? Why was it not more readily absorbed into the conquering tribes? Roman cities had running water, including Parma, but the barbaric tribes could not even manage to construct a proper tombstone! Did they kill everyone with intelligence or did the people with intelligence simply scatter to the winds, away from the cities, for protection? While I believe it likely that they scattered one does not forget all of his craft or knowledge because he flees. The problem, then, cannot be the immediate flight, in this case the sack of Rome. The problem was the constant threat of attack. These scattered intelligentsia could not convince into mini-cites towns because they did not have the military might to fight back the barbarians. Instead of being able to reform into a new society where they could continue their craft and knowledge, these disparate peoples had to either assimilate or continuously live in seclusion. Knowledge, then, was hard to perpetuate when lives were lived in flight of enemies. Survival was more important than passing on craft and intelligence. Over generations they became lost.
Returning to the museum we also saw the plentiful artifacts from a neighboring city of Parma (I forget the name) which, unlike Parma was not continuously destroyed. Archaeologists have been able to gather a better understanding of Parma through the study of this city. The most unique aspect of this city, though, laid in the giant bronze tablet found in its ruins. On this tablet are carved names and amounts. What had been discovered was the world’s first recorded (again I think) system of banking. The ruler of the city would give loans to the people so that they could build up the city and then the people would pay the loans back with interest, which the king would use to pay for the care of orphaned children. A noble use for banking, if I do say!
I had another history class at 2 o’clock and this one was a bit more difficult to comprehend. I was tired and its hard to concentrate on translating a language constantly for two hours. Sometimes I cannot keep up and my mind wanders, only putting me further behind. Whatever. These lectures are literally more for me to improve my Italian than to learn anything. We’ll see what happens.
Abby and I went for a long run after my class, one about which my body was quite angry. Still it always feels good to exercise and I listened to ‘<i>Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me</i>.’ I know, normal workout music. I’m a nerd, you don’t have to tell me. Still, the run would turn out to be more than necessary because at 7 we had our first cooking “class” (I’d more call it a party) with Anna, who is usually a host mom and runs one of the apartment buildings.
These classes are truly more of a time for everyone to practice his/her Italian because Anna and her husband Aldo do not speak the best English in the world (though I have more than a fair suspicion that they know MUCH more than they let on). Allora, I mean anyway, we went right to the kitchen where we watched Anna prepare Spaghetti alla Carbonara (spaghetti with pancetta in a cheesy-egg sauce). Although I vaguely knew how to make the pasta, and would most likely cook it slightly differently than Anna, I attentively watched her veritably home mother cooking methods. Once it was ready and after everyone had become less awkward about speaking Italian, we went into the dining room to eat.
Wow, this was good. Simple, eggy, withe sharp salty bite of Parmesan Cheese and soft fatty pancetta. The strong flavors of the cheese, pancetta and garlic were tempered and diapered throughout the noodles by the eggs which acted to thicken the sauce and attach it to the noodles. Though I was not the hungriest person in the world I finished my bowl and barely controlled myself from asking for seconds (something Anna would have loved). I clutched my belly, satisfied, figuring that we only had desert awaiting our taste buds. Then I remembered that I was eating dinner as a guest in the house of an Italian mother; the food had only begun. Our next course was green beans, salad, mozzarella buffala and ricotta cheese. Now this might sound mundane, other than the mozzarella buffala which is a veritable Italian specialty of which I have discussed previously, but there is a specialty to a home cooked Italian meal that can only be experienced by eating one. The cheese was bought from a specialty store in town, delivered fresh everyday from Puglia and they were spectacular! Fresh mozzarella cheese, “normal fresh mozzarella cheese”, in itself is creamy, a bit salty and undeniably delicious, but this mozzarella buffala literally disappears in the mouth. The solid cheese turns to slightly salty cream with that indescribable cheesy bite. Magical on it’s own, the cheese was even better with a bit of olive oil and some of Anna and Aldo’s homemade vinegar. As I said, the other vegetables might sound ordinary, but the homemade vinegar turned simple green beans and lettuce into a delicacy. As full as I was I couldn’t help myself. Anna asked if I wanted more, “voui più?” and I risponded, “Voglio mangiare più, ma il mio stomaco vuole che io no mangi più.” (I want to eat more but my stomach does not want me to). Anna said ok, but then I gave in and said “Ok! Vinci! Mangerò più!” (Ok! You win! I’ll eat more!). We finished all of the greens and most of the cheese. The meal was still not over. Anna took the ricotta, amazing on it’s own, and added sugar to it. I’ve known his concept prior, but had never actually eaten sweet ricotta without it being baked into a cake. It was like heaven. My overstuffed body simply could not stop eating. And then, to finish off all of the food and all of the wine, Anna made us a torte, which was 3/4 chocolate and 1/4 vanilla because she knows I dislike chocolate. For my vanilla part she offered me strawberry marmalade, homemade of course. Again, the simplicity of this meal and the beauty of the food was astounding. I could only manage to eat a little of the cake but it was damn worth it.
Even though I had to wake up at 6 to leave for Paris (YESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!) and had yet to pack I went out with Katie and Abby to meet Brian and Matt for a drink. We hung out and had a beer outside one of our favorite bars in town and chatted a solid couple of hours away before I finally had to go home and write an article for Early Risers along with packing. I’m really growing close to this group of friends. We get along extraordinarily well and I always enjoy their company. While it was never a fear of mine that I would not meet people on this trip, because I came to Europe to have my own experience, it certainly is better to have friends here. And honestly I never expected to find people with whom I got along so well! It’s comforting and it really helps stave away any homesickness I might feel for my friends and family at home. Mostly, though, it keeps away the longing and loneliness that constantly eats at me with Courtney so far away. I’m very thankful for their company in her absence.
Once home I packed while Abby wrote me and Courtney a list of places to go and phrases to use while in Paris. Reality was not striking me. Was I really going to Paris in about 4 hours? Was I really seeing Courtney? Was I really spending 5 days in Paris with my favorite person in the world (sorry everybody else. You guys know I love you, but this had to be said)? My mind refused to recognize it so after packing I wrote an article on the flurry of environmental moves this week even without the help of our Senate or Congress (the link is on my Facebook or just find it onearlyrisersweekly.com).
I finally went to bed at 4:15 ready to wake up at 6 and head towards Paris!!! What an adventure!!!