Genius and the Mundane in Italy by Danielle Bridges

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​In the summer before my junior year, I lived in Florence, Italy for a month to learn about the Renaissance. I spent the weeks before leaving reading up on the places we would be visiting and practicing rudimentary Italian. I was prepared to see incredible works of art, exquisite architecture, and many historic sites. Italy did not disappoint. For four solid weeks, I got to do amazing things like climbing to the top of the Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome, touring the Vatican Museum, and visiting David’s Michelangelo. I experienced the delicate beauty of Bernini’s statues firsthand in Rome, then toured the Roman Forum and the Pantheon. In class, we learned about the genius of men like Brunelleschi, who finally figured out how to build the largest octagonal free-standing dome of his time. I walked the same streets as powerful people like Brunelleschi, Verrocchio, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Medici.

All of this was expected, but I also met genius that I didn’t expect during my time in Italy. As a vocal music education major, I wanted to attend as many (free) concerts as I could, but due to our heavy itinerary, I could only make it to two. The first concert, through wonderful, was fairly uneventful. I happened to see a poster for the second concert, featuring the Santa Barbara Choral Society, while I was walking back to my apartment one evening. The advertised repertoire list included work by some of my favorite composers, including Palestrina, Aaron Copland, and Morten Lauridsen. Lauridsen’s music, especially his piece “O Magnum Mysterium,” was the catalyst for my decision to become a music education major, so I knew I had to go. My roommate, Carolina, came with me, and we sat in the third row of the beautiful church called Santa Trinita. The front two rows were reserved and empty, but a few minutes after we sat down, Lauridsen himself walked in and sat directly in front of us! I got to meet the man who inspired me to pursue a career in music, ask him questions, and listen to the Santa Barbara choirs sing “O Magnum Mysterium” while he was in the room (pictured above). It was another incredible, unexpected encounter with genius during my summer abroad.

For all the genius I experienced in Italy, for all the heights of human achievement I saw and the beautiful music I heard, I also loved acquainting myself with the everyday, mundane aspects of Italian life. I lived in an Italian apartment without a clothes dryer or air conditioning. My roommates and I went shopping at an unbelievably crowded grocery store without knowing which brands we should buy, or even knowing what each can of food was. We spent a couple of weeks trying to find the best pizza place in Florence (if anyone is wondering, it’s called Divina Pizza. It’s a few blocks away from Santa Croce, has fantastically weird artisanal pizza, and the staff are some of the friendliest people we met while in Italy). We had to learn how to live in a foreign culture, which included adjusting to all kinds of rules that are different from America’s rules. For example, it is an absolute necessity to “validate” train tickets before using them by inserting them in a punch machine. If tickets aren’t validated, a huge fine could be incurred. Fruit must be weighed and labeled by a special machine in the grocery store before it can be bought. In our apartment, at least, there was a limit to how much electricity we could use at one time. If we used too much, it would shut off. These mundane oddities, and many more, made every day in Italy an adventure.

We packed four weeks with the best of many different places in Italy, from Rome all the way to Bolzano. I hiked in Cinque Terre, ate wiener schnitzel in the Alps, biked in Lucca, and walked the medieval streets of Siena. By the end of it all, I was exhausted. This is where the best part of the entire trip came: I went home with open eyes. It’s easy to get stuck in one way of living, forgetting all of the good and the bad that comes with it. That was certainly true of my life in America before I spent a month abroad. Living in Italy forced me to step outside my comfort zone, and I discovered how much my friends, family, and career mean to me. I came back with a greater appreciation for the genius of my home here and a newfound joy in the mundane parts of my life.

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