An Abbey Honors Tradition
The Bishop Pilla Summer Institute is a program that many Honors students eagerly await from the beginning of their academic journey at the Abbey. After six semesters of hearing about the grand European adventures from the previous Honors Institute classes, the anticipation of this exciting voyage finally became a reality. Having experienced this five and a half week program for ourselves, we can join the classes before us in attesting to the camaraderie, cultural learning, and deepened faith that ensues when traveling as an Honors class.
A few days before our departure, Dr. Eugene Thuot set up a video chat with our Bishop Pilla program guides. Amidst the pressing responsibilities of finals week, there was much on everyone’s academically frenzied minds; but, when we heard Dr. Luigi Ferri’s Italian accent over the video chat, our nervous concentration on exams was, for a moment, replaced by enthusiasm for our European expedition.
On the Road to Dublin
With final exams finished and final papers trailing behind, we all met at the Charlotte airport to begin a journey that still seemed surreal. In Canada, we met our enthusiastic Italian language professor, Dr. Casciani, as we waited for the flight that would take us to Dublin, Ireland. When we arrived in Dublin, we met our Italian Literature professor, Dr. Ferri, and the John Carroll University students with whom we would take classes, go on tours and socialize in our free time.
Because the Irish professor who was initially going to introduce us to Ireland was not able to join us, a John Carroll philosophy professor, Dr. Wirkus, generously agreed to come last minute and introduce us to James Joyce’s Dubliners. We had many involved class discussions regarding the themes of identity and exile, which would be applied to everything we would read in class thereafter as well as everything we would see on our tours.
I-rish I Was in Dublin…
Dublin presented much in the way of culture, as we took group excursions through the city in the daytime, visiting the places that inspired Joyce in his stories, and passing through Trinity College, which houses sections of the renowned Book of Kells. The students, occasionally accompanied by Dr. Ferri, would frequent the local pubs in the evening, fulfilling the important cultural tradition of tasting Guinness, as we took in the lively scenery of exceptional Irish dancing and Irish music performances.
We were given a day to explore on our own, in which some went to visit a castle, others familiarized themselves more with Dublin city, and the small group I joined took a bus to Glen de Lough, where we hiked for about five hours in the chilly, yet breath-taking Irish mountains. In the famed song “Molly Malone,” Dublin is described as “fair”; however, if I had to portray my impression of Dublin in three descriptions, I would say Dublin is: rainy, infused with hidden beauties and historically rich.
A Luxurious Stay in Milan
Following our introductory week in Dublin, we departed for many new adventures in Italy, beginning in Milan. Our stay in Milan was quite luxurious. We shared hotel “rooms” which in some cases were more like little apartments.
Every morning, we were offered a buffet of gourmet foods in the hotel’s fancy restaurant before beginning our morning classes. We were given some free time between morning and afternoon classes, in which we could eat lunch and relax. In the evening, after more free time, we would gather again for a bountiful dinner of several courses.
During our stay in Milan, we took several day trips to other places, as well. We followed James Joyce’s life to Trieste, where Joyce and Svevo became friends. Our guide took us on a tour from the Svevo museum to sections of Trieste that were relevant to Joyce’s life.
One of the most interesting sites was an opera house that Joyce went to thirty nights in a row in order to gain a more detailed sense of humanity for the realistic qualities of his writings. We also took a boat ride on Lake Como, where we were surrounded by vast mountains, encountering some movie history as we passed by the place in which the original 007 series was filmed. Of course, we could not leave Milan without having seen Leonardo Davinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper.”
Milan was a place of unity for the Honors students because amidst the excitement of traveling to new places, we strove to keep in mind the message of our college, “That in all things God may be glorified.” Almost every evening, we would join together, either in the hotel or sitting by the pond with turtles and black swans, to pray and reflect on the psalms. As we studied about exile and identity, we were traveling in a place where the language and culture was unfamiliar to us. At the end of the day we were still able to find that element which joins all people – that we are all children of God.
The Adventures of Arezzo
Leaving the black swans of Milan, we moved on to the adventures of Arezzo. Arezzo was the first place where the students were able to put what they had learned of the Italian language course to use. We stayed in a more modern part of Arezzo, but a short walk from our hotel took us under the arches that revealed an older section which harbored many churches, shops and sculptures. Apart from old architecture and delicious gelato shops, the old section of Arezzo harbored an awe-inspiring overlook of far-off mountains, which seemed to be common to nearly every place we visited in Italy.
Similar to Milan, our stay at Arezzo was sprinkled with adventures to other places. We took a bus to Siena where we were given five hours to explore in our own little groups. Siena was a lot more tourist-oriented than I had anticipated, but there were so many hidden away places, like the aqueduct we found and the museum of St. Catherine of Siena’s home.
The city had a very artistic and lively feel, with street musicians playing jazz music and a sidewalk artist who reminded me of the sidewalk artist/chimney sweep, Bert, in the movie “Mary Poppins.” There was also an opportunity for peaceful reflection, as there seemed to be a church at nearly every other corner, including a massive cathedral that displayed some of the most intricate of Siena’s architecture.
Dante and David in Florence
The day following our trip to Siena, we caught a train to Florence, where we were overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture. We hiked up a large set of stairs as a group to get a view of Florence. We could see Il Duomo on the horizon, where we would later visit. We were given time to explore for ourselves before we met again on a tour. Some went straight to the market and others wandered through the city.
My friends and I went into the church that Dante frequented, which was incredible because we had just taken an Honors course entirely on the subject of Dante’s Divine Comedy. We went inside the museum that held Michelangelo’s “David” and spent a long time taking everything in. Arezzo, Siena and Florence were all very different places, which contributed to our reflection on the meaning of identity.
“I felt the most free in Abruzzo”
The next series of adventures was to be experienced in the countryside of Abruzzo, where we stayed for two weeks. Looking back, it is very difficult to say which place was my absolute favorite, but I can say that I felt the most free in Abruzzo.
Because of our more lengthy stay, we shared bungalows, which instigated a deep sense of camaraderie through cooking, running, game nights of Charades and Catch Phrase, star gazing and adventuring through the countryside. We walked a mile every morning to class on a street lined with a menagerie of wild flowers. We frequently took that time of transit to pray together, talk, and sing.
The highlight of Abruzzo for me was the opportunity to explore the beauty of Italy’s great outdoors. One of the most memorable group adventures was the first hike we took, to see the massive cross that Dr. Casciani and her family placed on the top of the mountain when she was ten years old. Provided with sandwiches and water bottles, all the students piled into the back of a big van, as we were driven part of the way up the mountain.
The travel to the cross was steep, but so beautiful. At the top, we ate and silently appreciated our surroundings for a while, until it was time to descend the slope. Not only was the mountain’s view pleasing, but the fragrance of wild thyme also awakened our sense of smell.
We later traveled to L’Aquila where Dr. Casciani took us on a tour around her home city. The destruction from the 2009 earthquake forced many people out of their homes, but we saw the persevering spirit of the city still present. A Renaissance fair was taking place, with flag throwing and drum-beating. We could hear the instruments playing as we waited inside a church to have Mass with an Archbishop, an old friend of Dr. Casciani’s. At Dr. Casciani’s request, the students provided music for the Mass.
Cooking, Culture, and Castles
Over the following days of our stay in Abruzzo we made gnocchi and tiramisu with the teachers and embarked on several traveling expeditions. First, we visited Pietrantonj’s Winery in Pescina, where we were able to experience Europe in a particularly sophisticated setting. We were given a tour through the winery, and given a chance to learn about different wines in a wine tasting.
We experienced more culture the next day when we visited Benedictine churches in Bominaco. We also walked to the castle in Bominaco, at the top of which we relaxed while eating bread and salami. We encountered many beautiful mountain views throughout our journey, but just as I encounter a sunrise every morning and never tire of it, these views never ceased to amaze me.
Making the most of the time we had in Italy, we took another hike the next day to the hermitage of San Bartolomeo. Instead of seeing the mountains from a distance, we were literally in the midst of the mountains. After the hike, we celebrated by eating a carton of cherries, having a cherry pit spitting contest. After driving in the bus a little more, we stopped for gelato to celebrate again.
After all the mountains we had encountered, we changed scenery, traveling to a beach in Pescara. We made a sand fortress, ate gelato, and some people even kicked a soccer ball back and forth. We enjoyed our day of recreation.
A Roman Holiday
Saying good bye to Abruzzo, we arrived in Rome for the most intense part of our trip. In this last week, we adventured as much as we could, despite frequent rainstorms. On one of our tours in particular, when we set out to walk to a Jewish museum and synagogue nearby a particularly powerful deluge spilled down. Even in “La Tempesta di Roma,” as we named it, no amount of rain could dampen our joy, for the rain provided yet another occasion to vocalize “Singing in the Rain” and other tunes.
Amidst tours to the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and other places, we woke up early one morning to get front row seats in the Papal audience. Later, some of the students even got the chance to go to a Papal Mass.
One of my favorite moments in the trip to Rome came when a student in our group set up a Mass for us in the crypt of St. Peter’s. Once again, we were asked to provide the music of the Mass, but this time, The Belmont Abbey Honors students were the only ones in the small room. This particular Mass felt like the epitome of our spiritual union during our voyage.
At the end of the trip, we were permitted three days during which people could pursue their own interests. Some made pilgrimages to specific churches, others traveled in small groups to Assisi, and still others leisurely went through shops in Rome, finding last minute souvenirs for themselves and their loved ones. Rome was an amazing place to end our adventure, not only because it reemphasized to us our faith, which is the center of our lives, but Rome left us hungry to continue our journey in other places, seeking the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
Excellence and Virtue, Joy and Song
Because of the foundational years as Belmont Abbey Honors Students, we were prepared to experience the Bishop Pilla program with the mindset to strive for and draw others to that excellence and virtue which is the heart and purpose of our college. What the Bishop Pilla Program offered to us, besides an amazing opportunity to learn about other cultures first-hand, was that we were able to further develop our identity as a class.
Through camaraderie, we learned we are a group of individuals who are thoughtful, faith-filled, and human, with an ever-present sense of joy in our hearts, displayed particularly through song.
Mary Margaret Gallaher is an Honors Institute Student of the Belmont Abbey College class of 2015. She wrote these memoirs after participating in the 2014 Honors Study Abroad program.
A Summer Well Spent