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Rome Rome, Orvieto - 2012

Georgia & Zig

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Tuesday, April 24th, Rome, Orvieto

We were up early for breakfast, then to the train station for the train to Rome. Familiarity sure makes it easier to get through the station.

I thought it would be easier to avoid the pickpockets if we skipped the Metro lines in Termini and walked down the street to Republica. Pickpockets cruise back and forth along both the A & B lines getting off a train going in one direction to hop on one going in the other: A pickpocket Passeggiata. And I was a perfect mark, the last one trying to squeeze onto an already packed train with carry-on luggage. She appeared out of nowhere pushing me “to get on behind me.” A tall black man in a baseball cap and t-shirt tried to warn me she was a pickpocket and ended up in an argument with her and 2 of her “friends.” Much heated Italian and a few “F*** yous!” in the universal language of English. “Watch your wallet” he kept saying as he got off the train (at the next stop where the women got off too!). They say that if you are on the metro and you see or hear a commotion, it is pickpockets. It’s true in my experience. Anyway, sure enough, the zippers on the pockets of my windbreaker were now unzipped. I hadn’t felt a thing – but it must have been disappointing because there was nothing there but the little card-case I use to carry business cards. Another reminder. Carry ALL money and valuables in your money belt under your shirt. Everything else is liable to disappear no matter how vigilant you try to be.
But on the positive side, how exciting is it to get felt-up on the subway even if you don’t know you are being groped?

The convent, Casa Beata Maria Margherita Caiani via Fabio Massimo, 26, is located on a nondescript residential street, 4 or 5 blocks NE of the Vatican and 2 blocks from the Metro red line. It was an easy walk with my trusty compass to point the way. (Note to self: NEVER forget to bring your compass. A map is pretty useless without one!)

The building could be apartments or offices. A small brass plaque at the recessed doorway is the only indication of the peace and security to be found within. We saw 5 or 6 sisters, all above 50 years in age. Suore Donatella was a tiny Italian leprechaun with snow white hair peeking out under her wimple. Because Georgia had prepaid one night for one person instead of two and because Rome had instituted a one euro per night tax on all the hotels and hotel-like institutions it took Sister D a long time in looking through old receipt books and much explanation in half-understood Italian to show us in a lovely, precise and elegant script exactly how much we needed to draw from the Bancomat. (You would know that a note written in such a script was precious because it could never just be “dashed off.”) For a 9-nights stay the bill was going to be 630 euros. An extremely good deal in my book.

The room itself was large, 18’ x 18’ with high ceilings and two beds (and a note to PLEASE not move the beds together because it scratches the floor!), a small 12” TV, toilet, sink bidet and large shower by European standards at 3’x2’. It was immaculate. We opened the huge window and shutters and the smaller bathroom one and got a delicious breeze and the incessant sounds of a Roman work day. It was overcast today, but the “Meteo” station said the rest of the week was going to be sunny and cloudless. The air still felt cool so I knew I’d be taking my windbreaker everywhere – either wearing it or tying it around my waist a la Romani.

After settling in the room we left for the Borghese Museum. We had “Roma cards” bought at the tourist office in “Termini,” that gigantic complex of trains, metros and buses that serves as the hub of Rome’s transportation system (and pickpocket system!). These cards allowed us 3 days of unlimited rides on the buses and metros, free admission to two museums of our choice, and reduced admittance to others. The Borghese is always mobbed with many more people waiting to be admitted than they can admit. You have to go the day before and get a reservation for a two hour slot the next day.

The museum is located in a Villa that belonged to the Borghese family, a middle class family of the 1200s who had the wonderful good fortune to have one of its illustrious members, Camillo, get himself elected Pope Paul V. The villa was never actually used as a residence, but is located in a heart-shaped park approximately one square mile. It’s now open to the public with gardens, a zoo, and a “meet-and-greet” for dogs. The whole complex must be seen to be believed with roads and foot paths and trees, hundreds of years old, fountains and statues, joggers and bicyclists, and at least 5 other museums from modern art to the Temple of Faustina. I guess it’s like what you would have if you could take the National Mall in Washington DC and staple it to Central Park in NY city and age it 900 years.

In 2005 we’d stumbled on a tiny corner of it near the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in the piazza del Popolo when we were trying to find the Spanish steps and the Trevi fountain, so that’s where we headed again to pick up the thread from 7 years ago. Sure enough the park was still there! As we walked in it was amazing how quickly the sounds of the city disappeared and were replaced by our own soft footfalls on the pathway through a neatly manicured park overarching pines and sycamores.

Joggers would go padding by and we welcomed the patches of late afternoon sun for their warmth. We arrived at the Villa shortly before 5 PM and went in to see if we could make a reservation. The lady attendant, drained from a day of too many tourists, told us there were no reservations available for tomorrow but that if we would come at 9:00 or shortly thereafter she was sure we could get in. Thrilled, we walked around in the gardens outside and took pictures of the spring flowers. Beds of beautiful violet-colored irises were just coming into their own. They were bordered by neatly trimmed miniature boxwoods making exquisite tiny formal gardens with pathways of white pebbles beside the Villa. All the way across the back was a huge formal garden with surrounding statues. And the family never lived here?

When we left the gardens we found a Metro stairway on the Via Veneto. When we got to the bottom we found ourselves in underground Rome with streets and parking lots and metros and stores of all descriptions. We stopped at a grocery store to find some provisions and saw a sign for the Spanish steps, so we followed it. It must have been close to 6 PM at this time and the crowd on the steps was in a wonderful mood. It was not too chilly and the steps were planted with azaleas in full bloom. It was lovely and people were taking pictures of everything. I can’t imagine how many souvenir pictures I appear in. I offered to be volunteer-photographer for lots of couples. When I offer they always look dubious until they see Georgia and figure “if she’s with him, he must be O.K.” There was only one dour German who refused but that was probably because Georgia had wandered off to look at a clump of azaleas. I don’t blame him.

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Last time we were here the azaleas were finished and the church façade, Trinita’ dei Monti, was covered because it was being renovated. This time it was all lovely. We climbed to the top and went up the stairs to visit the church, dropping the obligatory coin in a beggar’s cup. When we opened the door we were greeted with singing. Vespers had just ended and the evening Mass was beginning. We heard this particular order of co-ed brothers and sisters once before when we visited Vezelay in France. They established French monasteries around the world where the brothers and sisters sing in 4 part harmony. The women kneel on the left and the men kneel on the right. The singing is acapella, with simple melodies and lovely harmonies. In the setting sun I found it deeply moving. My favorite Mass so far – and all in French but in the heart of Rome! We are, after all, a catholic church.

After Mass we found an elevator outside the church that carried us down directly into the underground city. We caught the metro back to the Lepanto station where we got off and strolled back to the convent. In the evenings the locals here also take over the streets and have a Passeggiata. Where it was confined and constrained by narrow streets and alleys in Ravenna and Rimini, here it is free to expand to all the neighborhoods. Elderly men in suits and ties with their wives neatly coiffed and dressed as if for church stroll casually down the sidewalk greeting friends and neighbors in the outdoor cafes just opening. They won’t be in full swing until at least 8 or 9 PM. Long tables full of friends and neighbors laugh and toast each other, linger over their pizza or pasta and draw the evening out further with a “dolce,” a sweet with their cappuccino. Those crazy Americans who insist on cappuccino in the morning. Everyone knows you need the jolt provided by black espresso, inch deep, black as mud, and so full of caffeine it makes your teeth jittery in the morning. Cappuccino is for relaxing you and putting you to sleep. A sweet-dreams drink.
And we did have sweet dreams.

Wednesday, April 25th

The Borghese Gallery was amazing. For a while I didn’t think we’d get in. The attendant said 9:10 and by that she didn’t mean 9:03. That’s the time we presented ourselves at her counter after having stood outside in line for thirty minutes. She sent us away telling us to come back after 9:10. We huddled with a few other “walk-of-shame” denizens. We all tried getting back at the end of the line but when we got up to the counter again it was 9:08 and 9:08 is definitely not 9:10 so we were sent away again. And then at 9:11 she told all 8 of us to form another line and approach her quietly – which we did and we all got tickets! Ours were free because of the Roma Pass.

Inside the gallery we turned left instead of following the plan by turning right but that was wonderful because it means we started with the best – the six magnificent Carravaggio’s. And in three of them he is clearly using himself as the central model. In one other, the one with the Madonna with her foot on the head of the serpent, the young Jesus with his foot on top of hers looks suspiciously like Caravaggio too. We’d already seen the one at Ravenna’s City Museum with the lizard biting his finger. Here we had him as David holding Goliath’s head with this expression like “I warned you not to mess with me.” God was definitely on his side. In painting himself as a young John the Baptist reclining, he’s again staring right at us, the viewer, with the most strange expression. If in the David picture Caravaggio knows that he’s a giant-killer because of who’s behind him – in John the Baptist he’s struggling with the realization that it wasn’t all about him. He wasn’t worthy to untie the other’s sandals.

In the Giovanni with a basket of fruit picture Caravaggio seems to be living the sweet life. There is a smile on his lips as if to say “It doesn’t get better than this.” He’d had wonderful success – especially with his San Luigi dei Francesi Contarelli Chapel with its scenes from the life of St Matthew – his call, being inspired by an angel and his martyrdom. He was riding high, but in this picture his eyes are sad.

And then the last of all – the one where he is Bacchus obviously living a riotous life. Smiling broadly but with a terrible skin pallor.

In my schema he sees himself first with Mary opening doors, so to speak, then seeing himself as pointing the way to someone greater, then he’s slaying giants, then living the sweet life and finding it lacking, then the taste of evil, then a daily life of dissipation.

He died young.

Starting at the top that way you would think the rest of the museum would be disappointing, but how could it be disappointing with 6 or 7 Bernini statues – the most spectacular of which is the exquisite “Apollo and Daphne” where Apollo is pursuing her and she is being turned into a tree to evade him The marble is polished so finely that her cloak is translucent.

Her lips, open in a scream, seem almost wet. It took him 3 years: 1622-1625. I could have 30 years and not even be able to fashion those lips out of marble. How could anyone be so good as to portray soft human skin morphing into rough scaly tree bark – or to show such exquisite bare toes turning into tree-roots. What a species we are – to have some capable of creating such treasures. We truly are created in the imago Dei.

Leaving the Borghese we take a leisurely stroll through the park just people-watching. All the kids and dogs, all the people on bicycles and whole families in little pedicars out taking the air. And little traffic jams into and out of the parking lots. And towering sycamores and those wonderful cotton-ball topped pines of Rome. (I’ll never be able to listen to Respiggi’s “Pines of Rome,” in the same way again.) Glorious. Thank you Borgheses. Thank you Italia!

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We spend most of the day visiting churches and that means walking and riding buses. By 4:00 we’re both pooped. I tell Georgia I’d like to go back and hear Vespers and Mass at Trinita’ dei Monti again. That beautiful church at the top of the Spanish steps. She agrees, as long as I don’t wake her up if she falls asleep. I reassure her that sleeping is fine!

We sit in the second pew behind a man so wired he would make coffee nervous. Young and handsome, tall, dark haired and slim he sits there with his feet vibrating under the pew texting someone on a tiny phone. His head bobs up and down as he checks his screen and then scans the church keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the tourists. A man comes down the side aisle to my right with an enormous camera case and a camera with a telephoto lens so huge I’m sure he could get a close up of the pimple on the nose of the man in the moon. There’s a flash and the young man springs into action berating the tourist in French for his temerity. The tourist scuttles away, cargo pants, camera case and all, and the human Doberman returns to his post. In places where we are supposed to be quiet we write notes to each other – fingers on skin. Georgia writes “type A” on my arm. I add a “plus sign” and she chuckles. The Doberman gives us a warning glance.

Vespers was lovely and the Mass that followed very peaceful. Hard to believe that the crush of noise and confusion of the Spanish Steps is just outside the door. The churches of Rome promise peace in the middle of all the chaos – but it also requires Dobermans with cell phones.

These are our “visit as many churches as possible” days. Georgia found a wonderful book on Amazon’s used book service. It was written in anticipation of the 2000 Jubilee year to guide the pilgrims. Even a dozen years later we find it invaluable for making a list of the churches we most want to visit. When we’d been here before we’d just stopped in churches at random and that had made for some wonderful discoveries – like just happening on the two Caravaggios in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. Both extremely dramatic paintings. I had no idea such treasures would be so exposed – protected only by a teenaged docent.

So this time “Holy Rome: A Millenium Guide to the Christian ‘Sights’” was going to provide a map to theses “hidden in plain sight” treasures. And it did, showing the city by region with all (or 95%) of the churches mapped and described.

There are the 4 pontifical churches: St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, (the Pope’s official Cathedral) and St. Mary Maggiori, also called Our Lady of the Snows because it was built, tradition says, where she appeared in a miraculous snow shower on the summit of the Esquiline Hill.

Then there is Santa Croce di Gerusalemme founded in 320 where Constantine’s mother, Helen gathered the holy relics she brought back from Jerusalem: 2 thorns from the crown of thorns, a nail and the Titulus of the cross, the inscribed wooden tablet once placed on the Cross of Jesus Christ. It was she who was given credit for converting Constantine and ending the persecution of the Christians.

Santa Croce was the first of the second three that St. Philip Neri, concerned by the flagging devotion in his church, persuaded Pope Boniface VIII in 1300 to grant plenary indulgence for those faithful who also visited St. Croce and 2 other churches on pilgrimage: St. Sebastion , built over the catacombs and St. Lawrence Outside the Walls where the Deacon Lawrence is buried and which also contains a piece of the griddle on which he was roasted.

There was one of the ever-present beggars St. Lawrence called the “treasures of the church.” He was mentally ill and crippled. I had to give him a coin.

A word about beggars, conmen, street performers and pickpockets: They all want your money and you need to decide how to confront this. The pickpockets, of course, are out of bounds. You keep your paper money in your money belt and unbutton your shirt when you need it. Coins in your pocket are relatively safe unless they fall out sitting on the train or metro or bus. How to distribute them is the issue. There are, of course, the two extremes: giving money to everyone who asks or giving nothing to anybody. The first requires that you bring a lot of money to Rome. There are a lot of people who want your charity.

The second approach doesn’t speak well of your character.

My favorite recipients are the people providing entertainment. These are usually men and boys playing musical instruments. Accordions are very popular, but there are also violins, guitars, recorders and even a jazzy trumpeter who was very good. I personally don’t like the entertainers who take advantage of the captive audience on the metro. I found the Indian magician rushing through his routine between stops and the two man accordion band just creepy. But I gave a coin to a boy strolling through with his accordion. I was glad he was practicing. And some fine musicians began their professional life as buskers.

I think the human statues are harmless and seeing a white Imperial storm trooper standing in Piazza Navonne waving shyly at the children didn’t bother me. Nor did the man making giant bubbles. The battery-operated, watergun-like, noise-making bubble machines, though, were another matter. They’re really irritating. Any parent who would buy one deserves what they get.

The thousands of vendors who instantly appear with poorly made umbrellas at the first drop of rain and then magically change them to poorly made sunglasses the instant the rain stops are also providing a service. So is the man, I guess, who shows up at your sidewalk café table with bunches of mishandled roses.

The sob-story panhandlers are hard to put up with. They try to hand you grimy pieces of paper with badly written explanations for why they deserve your money. This is usually a young woman in blue jeans and a t-shirt. Worse though are the old women in filthy clothes who huddle and squat on the sidewalk outside the church and on heavily traveled streets. They look terrible, dressed in rags, with their hands folded in prayer and rocking back and forth piteously.

But even worse are the young women who do the same thing but holding a baby in their laps. Heart wrenching, but I really resent their using their children as a wedge into my pocket, and thereby insure that there will be another generation of people who make their living manipulating those around them.

And then there are the men and women with physical and mental handicaps so dreadful it’s hard to imagine how they could be gainfully employed. It makes me angry to know that some of them were damaged as children so that they could be more effective beggars, but what do we do now? It’s a problem.

Maybe a story would help explain my quandary. There was a solid middle-class Jewish merchant who walked to work every morning at 7 AM. Mordecai, the beggar, would always greet him on the street corner and the merchant would always drop a kopek in his hand. One morning the merchant said to Mordecai, “Business hasn’t been so good lately. I’m afraid I don’t have a kopek I can spare.” Mordecai pulled himself up indignantly, “Just because you are having a hard time, I should suffer?”

That’s the dilemma for all Christians. Freely given charity is an obligation. But if it’s an obligation, how can it be charity?” I guess that’s why Catholics often form the core of social activist movements. There are too many needing our individual charity to do much individually.

And that makes someone like Mother Teresa so very remarkable. By focusing laser-like on the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable – the children and the handicapped, and persuading others to join her, she’s been a real revolutionary. She’s not asked for nor accepted government assistance and all money received (and lots has been received) has been used for basic necessities and to found other mission houses to do the same thing around the globe.

Christopher Hutchens, in “The Missionary Position” accuses her, basically, of being a megalomaniac, wanting to create a cult. If she’d really wanted to help the poor, he said, she’d use the money to build hospitals and dispense medical services to the poor.

I think that Mother Teresa believed that hospital building and dispensing modern medicine was the responsibility of governments but that there were always going to be those who fall through the cracks, who would need simple human contact – bathing and cleaning and simple food. She had no desire to create another parallel health care system. She wanted individuals caring for individuals. The poor caring for the poor. Rather than needing lots of money for paid staff she needed lots of willing hearts and hands. Hence the need for more mother houses.

Saturday, April 28th, Orvieto

Georgia had heard wonderful things about the hill town of Orvieto and its’ “Duomo” a cathedral. It would be a day trip, so we set off early for Rome Termini. The earlier the better to avoid the crush.

There were still a lot of people but not unpleasantly full. Our train was leaving from one of those hinter-land tracks that completely threw us when we first arrived in Rome: “1es” The “es” means 1 east off by itself more than 100 yards from the other tracks. Because we were so savvy now we figured there was no need to hurry. We could get a coffee and then mosey over to arrive a few minutes before departure.

The coffee was certainly strong enough because somehow I ordered 2 espressos instead of the caffe con latte that I wanted. Georgia wouldn’t drink hers and went back to the counter to get a cappuccino. Real men don’t make mistakes so I drank 2 cups of mud-thick espresso. I was so wired my ears were buzzing and my hair was giving off sparks.

My hands were twitching as I tried to hold myself back to mosey speed. This was our first train trip without the luggage. I felt weightless. Not even a water bottle. Georgia wanted one so I told her she would have to carry it. She said that was no problem because she wasn’t bringing her coat. I like to tie mine around my waist as a first line of defense against pick-pocket attacks from the rear. She had the water and the Italian dictionary. My only extra weight was my notebook and a pen.

We arrived at the train 10 minutes early ready to find a seat. There were no empty seats! Regional inter-city trains don’t assign seats. The ticket you buy is good for any one of the trains going there in the next two months. So you never have assigned seats – just first and second class coaches. We always get 2nd class, of course, because they are much cheaper. But this train had no seats because they were all already occupied and people were even standing in the aisles. We got on a 2nd class car and started walking. We staked out 2 square feet by a window at the end of an aisle and Georgia sat down on someone’s luggage. I stood and just tried to wrap my head around such a crowd. It was like one of the metros at rush hour. But this ride was supposed to take more than an hour. How was that possible? It wasn’t.

After leaving us in these rolling ovens with the A/C turned off until we were parboiled, the train lumbered out of the station 15 minutes late! By that time 15 or 20 more people had squeezed into our car – one an elderly Indian woman with a cane whose son (?) persuaded a teenaged boy to share a seat with his sister so the old lady could sit down. If I’d had a seat I’m pretty sure I could have sold it.

We arrived in one of the outlying Rome train stations, Roma Tiburtina and I looked forward to lots of people getting off. Didn’t happen. No one moved to get off but when the doors opened another 30 people (no kidding) wedged themselves on and began the fruitless search for a place to stand.

One Eastern European woman traveling with her mother and 2 children plus enough luggage to set up camp somewhere became a tiger in the crush. The children, 8 or 9, started crying at being wedged in. It was the kind of situation that caused my mother’s claustrophobia. She’d been in a movie theatre in the 1920s when a fire broke out and the audience stampeded. She was caught in the crush and ever after she would faint in a crowd. Dad used to use it effectively even managing one time to carry her through a crowd trying to get on a ferry: “Make way, make way, she’s fainted!” The crowd parted and the couple they were traveling with congratulated Mom on thinking so quickly!

Anyway, this mother went ballistic and started berating everyone around that she needed room for her children or they were going to be scarred for life. She forced 4 teenagers sitting in the aisle to stand up so she could pass. I don’t know how she managed two seats but don’t ever underestimate the determination, cunning and ferocity of a mother tiger protecting her children. They’ll even pick your pocket or sit for hours on some stone steps, holding little plastic cups.

The train seemed to crawl along. It was hot, and smelly, and yet there was humor too. Two women standing nearby kept us apprised of our progress. You certainly didn’t want to miss your stop on a train like this! And Orvieto was only a whistle stop for this train bound for Venezia.

But finally, like all purgatories, this was destined to end. I was a happy camper when our new friend told us that Orvieto was “prossima fermata,” the next stop. And it was.

Off the train it was a different world: cool and pretty. The tickets to the top of the mountain on the funicular only cost 1 euro and the ride up was smooth and fast with a lovely view out over the valley.

The cathedral is called “Duomo” which means “house” or “cathedral” in Italian. Like the Duomo in Florence it is made of a light gray stone and a dark gray stone in alternating horizontal stripes. I have no idea why. Maybe for strength? Or maybe just because someone thought it looked good like that. If so, they were right. It does look good.

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We bought the cheapest tour tickets we could because I was tired of viewing excavations under churches. I asked what time Mass would be celebrated. She said not until 7 this evening. We’d be gone by then so we went to look around. I told Georgia we’d have a hard time finding a Mass to attend today. In one chapel there was a truly exquisite small window. The best I’d seen so far in Rome. I’m not really much of a fan of 18th century glass or paintings for that matter. It seems saccharine to me and over-done. But this little jewel was spectacular in blues and purples and deep greens. It was a crucifixion window and Jesus’ skin tone was a pale tan. There were angels with blue wings holding golden bowls in their pale hands and catching the blood dripping from his wounds. Their wings filled the central section and formed the background for Jesus. The blood dripping down formed red jewels in the olive green border. Wildflowers of red, violet and blue sprouted from the deep green glass at the foot of the cross. It so reminded me of Burne-Jones and the pre-raphaelites. I wondered if it could be one of his designs. But I didn’t remember seeing him use such a consistently dark palette. Even the paint lines on the glass were dark and further restricted the amount of light. And that’s where it was. Installed in the chapel of the sacred cloth. My photo doesn’t pick up all of its beauty.

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The reliquary was open permitting our viewing the cloth. It was again very moving.
As we were sitting there gazing at the cloth and at the window a young priest walked down the chapel aisle and 6 or 7 young men, apparently seminarians, entered through the sacristy door and sat in the first two pews. The priest began a service singing the greeting and the prayers. Two seminarians did the readings again singing all the constant parts. The homily was on the scandal Jesus presented in his day and the scandal he still presents today. His question to the apostles still applies: “Will you leave me too?”

Most of the Eucharistic prayer was also sung, the seminarians joining in with the priest when appropriate. The purgatory we endured on the train ride has been rewarded with the heaven of this lovely chapel and its’ relic and the lovely unexpected Mass, on a day I was sure there would be no Mass.

Outside, Georgia went shopping and I went to find a garden wall, preferably with a view. I found it, overlooking the valley. I only had to share it with clumps of noisy tourists flushed through on their way to some underground caves excavated in the mountain. They moved through quickly and like the gray cat beside me I did my best to ignore them. I worked on this journal and enjoyed the sunlight playing on the valley wall opposite us. It wasn’t as vast as San Marino’s view but then Orvieto isn’t its own separate country.

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Georgia came back with some drinks and a salami sandwich on a long bun with lettuce and tomato. Suddenly, at my feet, the cat decided he didn’t wish to be ignored anymore. The three of us enjoyed our little picnic – even when more clumps of tourists flowed through.

The priest and seminarians gathered for a picnic too, down close to the edge of the overlook. The seminarians were cute and that wasn’t lost on four teenaged girls in spaghetti-strap sundresses who sat on the grass between them and us. They managed to laugh and giggle and lie back on the grass and stretch, and do everything they could possibly do to attract the boys’ attention. Oh the pains of longing. Unless the boys were made of stone they noticed.

It was time to go. I told Georgia I wanted to walk down. She said that I needed to be at the station by 6:30 when our train would leave. No problem. She hopped on the bus to take her to the funicular. I started down the street and stopped at a tobacco shop to be sure of the direction. She reassured me. The first part of the trail was down a wide circular stairway built in a round tower. It went down about 100 meters to a pathway leading downward. There were a lot of pebbles on the asphalt path and I was afraid I was going to fall. Parts of the trail were between 5 and 10 degrees. But there was such a glorious breeze and it was very quiet. I heard only the sound of the birds and a dog barking in boredom some miles away. No traffic noise. No sirens. No crowds. I could get used to this. And then the pathway started up for some reason. I rounded a corner of the mountain and there was an older man sitting on the wall. “Buon giorno,” I said. “Buona sera,” he replied. Just then a minivan came out through the town wall and turned right – down the footpath I’d been walking. That surprised me. There had been other paths going down from my track. Maybe they were driveways.

The old man motioned through the gate and said something I think meant something like “Are you trying to find the center of town?” I said “Treno,” and motioned down the road that clung to the cliff face to the left outside the gate. He nodded and said something pointing at the station far, far below over his left shoulder.

I knew that, and figured the road had to loop back somewhere up ahead. I asked him if he would take my picture with the lovely valley in the background. He did. And then I asked if I could take his picture. He smoothed his hair and posed. And so we parted, me pretty sure I knew where I was going, him pretty sure I’d get lost. He was right. The only things I saw looping back to the right looked like driveways to various houses stapled to the side of the mountain. Dogs barked at me if I even thought about approaching their house and I figured they didn’t speak English any better than I spoke Dog.

The road, and it was now clearly a road, continued to move to the left. I could tell I was now far away from the station back to my right at least as far as I’d walked since meeting the man on the wall. A stop sign appeared and I was at a major two lane road with narrow shoulders. A young father was playing volley ball with his daughter and I asked the best way to the train station. “stazione treno.” He exchanged a significant look with his daughter who said something like “Oh great, another lost tourist walking along a busy highway.” But he did his best and I pretended to understand. He made it clear I’d missed the walking path. I turned right on the highway and continued a downward trajectory. The road wasn’t too busy so I walked on the left facing traffic, as Mrs. Bruce, my fourth-grade teacher had taught me, and I stepped off the road into the grass when a car labored by. I walked through a lovely overlook just in time to see two bicyclists laboring UP the mountain toward me. And they didn’t even look like they were laboring!
I arrived at the train station at 6:27. Three minutes to spare. I asked Georgia if she was worried. “Nope,” she said, “the train has been delayed for 30 minutes.”

Back at the Convent we took showers, washed our clothes in the sink and hung them on an elastic clothesline we carry strung up in the bathroom.

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To be Continued
 
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Georgia & Zig

100+ Posts
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Sunday, April 29th St. Peter’s Square, Stained Glass Little House of the Owls

It started off peacefully enough. We went to the neighborhood grocery store. As in many European countries there are often grocery stores in the basements of other stores. We bought wine, juice, chocolate, cookies, bread, cheese and meat. Just your basic necessities. Then back to the room to put groceries in the refrigerator before leaving for the Pope’s blessing in St Peter’s square at noon.

Now a word about shame. All cultures employ shame to help keep people in line. After all, there’s only so much that can be accomplished using police forces. To keep everyone in line with a police force you end up needing one policeman for every citizen – and you still would have the problem of “who polices the police?” Shameless cultures tend toward police states.

Italy is very much a “shame culture.” I only saw police give one traffic ticket and one parking ticket. It’s not at all unusual to see people in cars berating other drivers or pedestrians who transgress all the unwritten rules. From simple looks of disgust to all out finger-waving and red-faced dressings down. The people police each other with shame.

And Mother Superior gave me a good policing. Georgia had stopped at the refrigerator, so as luck would have it, I was the first on back in the room. Mother Superior and our maid were standing at our bathroom door with their arms crossed “tsking.” I knew immediately that something was up but had no idea what. Mother turned and gave me both barrels. “No, No, No!” she said red-faced and wagging her finger back and forth. Gesturing at the clothes line we had strung in the bathroom. She exclaimed, “No, No, No, something, something, something, humidity, something, something, something,” gesturing at the floor and pinching the hem of my Kentucky t-shirt, she swept both hands back and forth to indicate that floods of water from my t-shirt were going to ruin the tile floor and moisture would cause the paint to peel off the walls.” The maid shook her head in disbelief. “Mi dispiace,” I said, over and over. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” “Non conosco,” which was my futile attempt to tell her I didn’t know we couldn’t wash clothes in the room. We’d certainly done that everywhere else we’d stayed – including all the convents. “No, No, No,” she wouldn’t be side tracked. “Something, something, lavanderia!” (Laundromat) She gestured with her hands that it was just around the corner. I remembered the 10 euro washing I’d already done but had no desire to try to tell her we couldn’t afford that each time something needed washed. “Mi dispiace, mi dispiace.” She looked disappointed that I wasn’t putting up enough resistance. It seemed to deflate her. She started for the door, with only a half-hearted restatement of the depths of our transgression and the probity of her righteous indignation. I tsked along with the maid who looked at me and shrugged when Mother left the room. “Mi dispiace.” I said to her. She put both hands up and shook her head, then finished wiping down the bathroom floor with a towel wrapped around a flat mop.

And now Georgia made her appearance having hid out somewhere until the storm passed. I suggested she write a note explaining what I couldn’t say – that we didn’t know it was wrong and we had washed our clothes in the sink everywhere we went. Probably wouldn’t make any difference but I would feel better. But that would have to wait. It was getting close to noon.

We were only 10 minutes from St. Peter’s, so off we went. There was no problem knowing which way to go, we just slipped into the stream of humanity in Via Ottoviano and got swept along.

The jumbotrons in the square showed that Mass was just ending in the Basilica. Pope Benedict blessed the congregation and then was wheeled, standing on something like a short airplane-boarding-ladder at the end of a long procession of priests and deacons, acolytes and servers. It was now 11:30. He was going to rest, I’m sure. He looked frail.

Outside people jockeyed for positions where they could see the second window from the right on the top floor of the Vatican apartments. Each time I looked around the crowd was larger. At 11:45 they opened the windows and hung a purplish red banner from the window. The crowd cheered and applauded. But no Pope.

At exactly 12:00 the bells began to ring and the Pope appeared. A roar went up from the huge crowd. “Viva Papa!” they shouted. Was this a normal crowd or just huge because it was the Easter season? Don’t know, but it sure was a lot of people. The Pope delivered a homily for about 10 minutes but it was in a German accented Italian I couldn’t understand. Then he blessed the crowd. Very exciting. And then there were the “announcements” which were little messages for different nationalities mentioning especially different groups on pilgrimage. I recognized German and Russian, and French and Polish. There may have been others but with each one a little cheer would go up from one corner or another of the enormous throng. A huge crowd, yes, but a crowd made up of smaller groups from all over the world – united in recognizing this man as the successor of St. Peter, Petrus, the Rock. And then it was over.

Georgia, wonderful researcher that she is, found a house, Little House of Owls, built as a refuge for Prince Torlonia on the grounds of the Villa Torlonia, so full of stained glass it was turned into a little museum. We managed to find it with a combination of Metro rides, bus rides, walks, and searching for an entrance. It is a little gingerbread house built by an eccentric Italian nobleman named Enrico Gennari, friend of Erick Satie. The numerous stained glass windows were made by Cesare Picchiarini between 1910 and 1925 from designs by Duilio Cambellotti, Umberto Bottazzi, Vittorio Grassi and Paolo Paschetto.

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The style was generally representational and very similar to a modernizing of the Pre-Raphaelites. It looked very much like the window we saw in Orvieto. I’ll have to do some research to see if one of them did it. I need to do a drawing for the Bishops’s Chapel in Lexington, Kentucky, and this style, I think, would be lovely.

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There were lots of cartoons, ie full-sized sketches for windows in a church in Piazza Cavour – not far from our room. I will have to try to stop by and see them. We took tons of pictures. This museum and the prospect of visiting the church alone make this trip worthwhile!

We moseyed back toward the room on a zig zag path trying to see churches on our wish list. The problem is, of course, they are not always open and then when they are, they are all open and you can’t be everywhere at once. And then, when they are open they may be having Mass and you can’t photograph and rubber neck. Eventually you end up seeing churches by catch as catch can when you find their doors open.

We crossed the Tevere (Tiber) on the “Angel” bridge where Bernini was commissioned to sculpt 10 angels holding relics from the Passion of Christ. Georgia told me that the first two completed were so fine that Pope Clement IX wouldn’t let them be put on the bridge for fear they would get damaged. The bridge still has only the models Bernini made and St. Andrea della Fratte close to the Spanish steps has the two “real ones.” I have a wonderful photo of Georgia sitting in a pew basking in a pool of sunlight gazing up at one of them. One angel gazing up at another.

Over the bridge we turned right to go around the Castel Angelo and past Piazza Cavour to visit the Chiesa Valdese where Liberty (Art Nouveau) windows are installed. Over the front door we saw a lovely mosaic of the candle “light of truth” made from the cartoon we’d seen at the Villa Torlonia. The church was locked and so was the attached bookstore next door. A plaque on the wall said the church was only open for services on Sunday but the bookstore was open daily. I’ll stop by tomorrow.

Back in the room, Georgia, scoff-law and malefactor that she is, washed her underwear and a pair of pants in the sink and hung them up in the shower, saying she would hang them in the closet in the morning before the maid came in. Me, being the “good boy” that I am would have none of it. I’ll wear m socks until they stand at attention by themselves in the corner and I can step into them like a pair of fireman’s boots. My underwear will crackle by the time I get home.

And yet, the nuns do seem friendlier somehow. I imagine they’ve all felt the lash of Mother Superior’s wrath and I guess this is a rite of passage or bonding moment for us all. Sister Donatella, the white-haired Irish leprechaun, gave us a slip of paper with the address of the laundromat. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it would be a very chilly day in a very hot place before I would feed any more euros into an Italian washing machine.

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To be Continued
 
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Georgia & Zig

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Monday, April 30th, Scavi Tour

Today is the “Scavi Tour” under St. Peter’s. It’s not terribly expensive, just 12 euros each, but there are so many people wanting to see the excavations we had to request our tickets back in November 2011. Our tour starts at 9 and Georgia is wound up tighter than a pocket watch. We arrive at the left portico about 8:15. The Swiss Guards tell us we’re here on the right day but too early. In 20 minutes we should present ourselves to the little police hut off to the side. There’s no one there right now. The policeman will check us first, then we come back to the Swiss Guards.

So we went and sat at the base of one of the lovely tufa columns. There was a work van there with a large wooden form of the top of one of the columns. They are doing renovations of parts of the famous “arms” Bernini designed to enfold the crowds in St. Peter’s square. Two workmen were struggling to move it. I added myself to one end. Three sets of hands made a big difference.

Twenty minutes later two policemen were in the little kiosk and we went in to get “wanded” for guns and metal. Then, no longer a threat to anyone, we presented ourselves back to the Swiss guards. It was now 8:35. The guard shook his head and said 8:45 was the earliest we could go in. But if we didn’t wait in the little kiosk corral we’d have to go back past the policemen again; so we stood in the drizzle for 10 minutes and visited with the other early birds.

Altogether it looked like there were going to be 8 of us English-speakers going through together. Our young guide was from Norway or Denmark and spoke a heavily accented English very rapidly. He used “O.K?” the way I’ve heard teenagers use “like.” I asked him if he could speak more slowly. He couldn’t. He was extremely nervous and when Georgia asked if he could stop saying “O.K.” that made him even more nervous. Eventually we pilgrims would ask each other what he said as we were hustled along on the tour.

It was truly fascinating. The excavations had been done in such a way that we were walking along a narrow passage way that had been the original street when Peter was laid to rest in a Roman cemetery. Tombs on either side were Pagan, but graffiti on the wall (I knew I liked graffiti) identified which tomb was Peter’s and as other tombs were built they were crowded in close to Peter’s. When the first chapel was built it enclosed Peter’s tomb which became the altar itself. Over the centuries bigger and bigger basilicas were built and Vatican Hill was leveled. The upper part of the hill was used to fill in the surrounding tombs so they could bear the weight of the churches being built on top of them. It was this filling that preserved the beautiful Roman mosaics and showed the change from Pagan to Christian burial in the ancient cemetery.

And always each altar was built above and incorporated each preceding one. Peter has remained the rock on which each incarnation of the Basilica has been built. There is now a tiny orange light in his tomb and we were able to see it through a tiny slit in the wall. It gave me chill bumps.

Back inside the basilica we fought the crowds to take some pictures of a woman repairing one of the mosaics, so detailed as to resemble a painting. We couldn’t get close enough to tell for sure. The upkeep on a building built on top of a tomb and added to for 2000 years must be staggering.

After the Scavi tour Georgia wanted to go shopping for souvenirs and I wanted to see if I could get in to see the stained glass at the Chiesa Valdese. The name means the “Waldensian Church.” They are a pre-Protestant denomination founded by Italian Peter Waldo in the 12th century. They merged with the Italian Methodist Evangelical Church to form the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches in 1975.

The stained glass windows in the church were truly stunning and very peaceful but not really very “religious.” There was only one window with a face in it – presumably “the good shepherd.” All the others had vases and lilies – lots of lilies, and there were some with roses. For the most part each was a repeat of features found in others but with a different color scheme. The artistry was magnificent – the theme non-existent.

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I’d have to say these windows were just beautiful “wall paper” windows. I guess that’s the way it usually is, but it still depresses me. I prefer the ancient practice of telling stories in the glass. Not much of that any more. And I guess there are too many iterations of Jesus kneeling in prayer by the boulder in the Garden of Gethsemani. We need a new image for the pivotal moment – I nominate the statue at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, USA. Jesus on his knees with his hands completely shielding his upturned face.

After photographing everything in sight I went back to thank the lady pastor in the bookstore. She was in a semi-heated discussion with a customer. It sounded like a debate both were familiar with. The chilly young man had a crucifix around his neck. I decided to look around the bookstore. My Italian is not good, but it wasn’t hard to translate some of the titles: “John Paul II; Antichrist,” “Benedict XVI and the subjugation of Women,” “A Thinking Man’s(!) Religion.” I guess the anger is understandable but it seems sort of sad to build a religion around what you are against, instead of what you are for. It’s akin to a religion of hate – they can be very powerful, as the world judges power – look what Hitler was able to do, but I’m probably biased—I think a religion based on love will win in the long run.

Georgia and I were to meet back at the room in a couple of hours so I took my leave, complimenting the pastor on her lovely windows. She returned a wry smile. I’m not sure she likes having such famous windows in her keeping.

Georgia was still not really recovered and we just settled for gazing out the window watching the fascinating Roman street scenes and eating a picnic-lunch off the room’s windowsill. Bread, cheese, fruit, Roman backdrop. What more could you possibly want?

Afterwards she felt a little better and we decided to venture out for some church-hopping. From our room near the Vatican we meandered Eastward across the Tiber looking for Piazza Navona—home to the spectacular Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi designed by Bernini and featuring an ancient Egyptian obelisk at its heart. And the Piazza itself was hosting a crowded farmers’ market and was home to the stunning church; Sant’Agnese in Agone where the tomb of St Agnes is located. The Piazza was once the ancient stadium of Domitian where she had been martyred in the year 304. Her skull is visible in a niche in the altar.

Then on to Sant’Agostino, just a few minutes’ walk away—the mother church for the order of St. Augustine. His mother, St. Monica, the patroness of lost causes—who never stopped praying for her pagan son is entombed there as well. There were paintings by Raphael, and Caravaggio, and a statue by Bernini. And all just right there! Can you imagine a country with such stupendous art just there? Not hidden away in museums—but just there where people go to worship God each week? How amazing is that??

And then we went on to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte where the two Bernini Angels from the Pont de Angeli were moved. That’s where I took my angel’s picture. Then to the Piazza della Minerva, near the Pantheon to see the famous Bernini statue of the Elephant carrying the obelisk on its back. It’s right next to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva where we had to visit the Michelangelo statue of Christ, and the frescos by Filippino Lippi, as well as a peaceful funerary statue of Saint Catherine of Sienna. You just move from glory to glory in this city. The public art is PUBLIC. If they were in the US someone would be trying to sell the “Advertising Rights” for the Trevi Fountain: “Let’s call it ‘The Republic Bank Fountain!’ and use the motto: ‘Deposit your coins in here!’”

But now it was starting to get late and we thought we’d better meander back toward the convent. We had to cross the Pont d’Angeli again, so we could see the models of all the other angels he envisioned. They were lovely at sunset with the Castel Sant’Angelo as the background. Such iconic views.

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Tuesday, May 1st, On the way to Cassino and Montecassino

Today was going to be a busy day with a three hour trip across Rome and then on the train to Monte Cassino. We definitely needed to fortify ourselves. Delicious croissants and Café Latte did the trick. Out the train window we saw beautiful clumps of poppies along the train tracks—in all the waste areas. In fact, Italy is the only country I know where God even decorates the wasteland so beautifully.

There was a statue in the Cassino train station dedicated to the humble worker, and the sublime heroism of those who perform those obscure “Dovere” services (Duties). How perfect for a trip taken on May 1st, the Memorial of St. Joseph the worker. The town of Cassino, itself, is in a bowl formed by surrounding mountains. The Abbey of Monte Cassino, of course, is on top of those mountains.

A light lunch of Bruscetta and Gnocci with eggplant and greens and lamb stew, then a pleasant walk around the town where they were having a Mayday festival capped off by a 30-minute bus ride up the mountain. There were some hardy souls walking up, but not us!

The abbey itself was founded by St. Benedict in 529 AD, built on the ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to Apollo. The early Christians always felt a special fondness for Apollo, the Sun God, to build churches dedicated to Jesus, God’s Son. The entrance featured the ancient well and a flight of stairs with St. Benedict, on one side and his twin sister St. Scholastica on the other. There were lovely frescos in the chapel showing the siblings’ complicated and loving relationship. Her convent was located 5 miles south of the abbey. There is a wonderful story about him visiting her with the premonition that it would be the last time she would ever see him. She asked him and his companions to stay the night. He said he could not and turned to go. She prayed that God might prevent them leaving. Suddenly a terrible hail storm sprang up and they could not leave. “May God forgive you sister for that prayer,” he said. “Why brother? I asked you for a favor and you refused, so I asked God and He granted it!” She is the patroness of the Abbey and the patron saint against storms.

The views from the monastery out over the valley were amazing, and a walk farther up the mountain led me to the caves where St Benedict first resided before the Abbey was built. They were shallow affairs. It must have been terrifying to be in them during the frequent mountain storms.

The mosaics inside the church were glorious—glittering in the soft lights. The cherubs and angel statuary all had fat legs and ankles, showing I guess how tastes in human beauty change depending on the availability of food. When you have lots of food, slimness is prized. When you have scarcity, it’s corpulence that is admired.

The trip back to the convent was uneventful but Georgia continued to feel peaked.

Tuesday, May 2nd, Last day walking around

Georgia just didn’t feel well enough to go out today so I decided to just get lost all by myself. I’m good at that—and though it drives Georgia crazy I really don’t mind it—especially in a city as glorious as Rome. First off, I wanted to head back to Santa Maria della Vittorio for a closer look at the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. It is surprisingly theatrical, with the Cornaro family, who were the patrons, looking on the scene from their theatre box. The light of heaven rains down on her caught in the throes of ecstatic pain/pleasure. The angel stands above her holding a golden dart with which she says “he pierced my heart” several times so deeply as to even enter into “my bowels” and pull them out. During this time she says she only “desired to be consumed by her pain, which was a greater happiness for me than any that can be found in creatures.” As difficult as this would be to capture in words, consider Bernini’s task: trying to capture that sentiment in marble. And he succeeded.

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I tried to see too much, and failed. Though I did manage to visit the Trevi Fountain again, and the monument to Vittorio Emanuelle II, and a visit to St Paul, outside the walls, where there are images of all the popes, from Peter to Benedict and a lovely stained glass window dedicated to Pope Urban VIII and his three bees. And I did walk past the Circo Massimo, where I sat and watched the Roman joggers enjoying themselves. And visited the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli with the two enormous figures beside their horses guarding the Cordonata steps. And Caesar’s Forum with yet more ancient ruins. And everywhere, you remember, where you find empty “wasteland,” you will find marvelous red poppies. It must be a nightmare to try to build any new buildings in a city as old a Rome. I’m sure that everywhere you stick a shovel you find something that needs to be saved.

On the way back to the room I had to visit the Roman Pastry shops and try not to drool on the display cases. And I needed to try to safely navigate the justly infamous Roman traffic and the parking patterns that seem to turn the city into one big parking lot. But I made it back to the room, and we began to pack and plan for our trip to the airport tomorrow. Hard to believe it was time to go.

Wednesday, May 3rd, Homeward bound

Took the train to the airport. We have only one picture from the trip home—a photo of a nicely modern stained glass from the chapel door at the airport. No overt religious iconography—in keeping with modern sensibilities. As with most airports we had to run the gauntlet of “Duty-free” shops. We bought some snacks and I bought a lovely Italian salami to enjoy when we got home.

The flight itself was uneventful—and speeded along by movies and pre-recorded TV shows. In Atlanta we went through customs and they asked if we had any meat products. “Just the Salami I bought at the Duty-free shop.” They wrote something on my form and told me to head over to that room “over there,” where a nice man asked to see my “Duty-free” salami. I handed it to him and he pitched it into a barrel full of other confiscated stuff. “Oh man!” I whined. “Why are you doing that?” “Because it’s an agricultural product and might contain “mad-cow disease.” “Couldn’t you at least take it home so someone could enjoy it?” He didn’t smile. “Just be glad that you declared it on the customs form or you’d be looking at a $500 fine.” I guess I was, but also wondering what good “Duty-free” shops were.

One more disappointment when we arrived in Lexington. It was midnight so we caught a taxi from the airport. When we arrived at home I went to our “super-secret” emergency key location (above the door) and the key was gone! Evidently Jenny was concerned about my less-than “super secret” hiding place and had moved the key. It was now perfectly safe, somewhere, since she was the only one who knew where it was.

I tried the door. Locked. I tried all the doors. All locked. I tried all the windows. Locked. I looked around for something to break one of the door’s glass panes. Found a brick and smacked the window pane gently! Nothing. Smacked it a bit harder. Nothing. Really bashed it. Still nothing. Felt the “glass” and realized that it was actually thick plastic Lexan—not glass. Sigh. More “safety.”

As you can imagine I was occasioning a good bit of noise with this attempted burglary and my next-door neighbor, Earl came over to investigate. Why, oh why, hadn’t I left a spare key with him? He did have a key to the outside utility room where he was getting the cat-food to feed Dixie, but not a key to the house.

While he and Georgia watched apprehensively I kicked the carport door just below the knob and splintered the door-jamb smartly. We were in. And I was bushed. We carried our bags in, bade Earl a good night, propped something against the splintered door to hold it closed and toddled off to our little trundle bed with visions for Berninis and Caravaggios dancing in our heads.

Next time we remember to tell Jenny not to move the key.

The End
 
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