From the Director:
Parents, family and friends:
We have had two great weeks since I last wrote.
I was worried about having snow for skiing in the Abetone mountains, but we were blessed with great weather and good snow. Many took lessons, over 20 that had never skied or skied very little before. My son, Jonathan, went with us and took the experienced skiers to the Val di Luce slopes and showed them how to get to all the different areas. I stayed behind to introduce the beginners to their teachers.
For over 25 years we have stayed at the Excelsior Hotel, the oldest hotel in Abetone. If you follow me on Instagram, you saw photos of the hotel and the family that own it. Ms. Lea is 83, her brother Mauro just turned 80 and their little sister is 69. They are always so kind to us: they feed us well (breakfast and supper) and let us lounge and enjoy the common areas of the hotel.
Saturday, February 11th, we had our first onsite class outside of Florence. We went to the hill towns of San Gimignano and Siena. When friends, family or other guests come to visit I often take them to San Gimignano, I love sharing some of the highlights of the town with the students. The Collegiata, main Cathedral of San Gimignano, has medieval frescos that line the side aisles and nave and are very well preserved. They depict scenes of the Old and New Testaments as well as a last judgement scene in the nave. San Gimignano has some delicious gelato that a friend Sergio makes. We walked up to the castle tower together for many photo opportunities. The students continued on to Siena with Grant and the Fishers where we have been using the same onsite teacher for years now. Her name is Donatella and she is Sienese and she loves sharing her city with visitors.
The HUF men have been very helpful at worship with the Florence Church. They have helped with prayers and with song leading.
Monday, February 13th, the students went to visit the Santa Croce (Holy Cross) church. Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan order church in the world. Michelangelo, the artist and architect; Galileo Galilei, astronomer and scientist; Macchiavelli, the writer and statesman; Rossini, the composer, and many others are buried in this church. They also visited the Bargello museum (also called the National Sculpture Gallery when Florence was capitol of Italy after the Unification of Italy in the mid 1800's) where they saw works by Donatello, Brunneleschi, Ghiberti, Verocchio, Michelangelo, Gian Bologna and others.
Tuesday, February 14th, at lunch we had a super Valentine's day party. Mona loves organizing our special holiday parties. Grant and our staff and many of the students worked hard to make our Valentines lunch special.
Our Rome trip was super with incredible weather. Riccardo "Fotopulman" (not his real last name but the name everyone calls him) and his wife Patrizia joined us for the Rome trip. Riccardo has taken every HUF group photo since the begining of HUF in 1980. He is a great friend. Patrizia was so moved when we had our devotional in the lower level of the church of San Clemente that she was tearing up and she shared with the students a few words of what that moment meant to her. After our visit in the main Roman Forum area, several HUF students with Riccardo, Patrizia and I went to the Capotoline museums. We shared a cappuccino at the museum café that has an incredibly beautiful panoramic view of the city of Rome. We were there at sunset! Gorgeous!
Tuesday, February 21, we experienced and learned about a Catholic mass and shared in a hymn service at one of the oldest catholic churches in Florence, Santi Apostoli.
The students are making final preparations for their first independent travel. I am excited for them. Please keep them in your prayers as they travel next week,
God bless you,
Robbie, HUF Director
Every Spring HUF semester packs up and heads to Abetone, Italy in the Apuan Alp mountains at the northern edge of Tuscany for a ski trip. This semester, the trip was planned for about 10 days into the program. But even before the group first arrived in Florence, the ski trip looked as if were going to dissolve away.
Before the students arrived this semester, Abetone was having an unseasonably warm winter. There was a snow base but it was melting fast with the rains that started to fall just a few days before our trip.
Just two days before we were suppose to leave, things did not look good. But we decided to wait until the very last minute to call it off. So, by noon the day before our 6am departure, a decision was going to be made.
Robbie called our friend and ski-gear renter Maurizio to get the latest weather update. We were all but certain we knew what the answer would be but to our surprise, our friend from the mountains called with good news. It had started snowing overnight and with no clear end it sight, the slopes would be covered the next day, ready for our first runs down the mountain. So with 20 centimeters of freshly fallen powder, to the mountains we went.
I am by no means an experienced or expert skier, I had only been once before this trip and I had told myself, “Well, that was fun (and painful), glad I tried, but never again.” I sort of checked skiing off my bucket list of things to try in my life and retired my ski socks along with the memory of many bruises.
I had tried skiing once. I decided I wasn’t good at it and thought I would never do it again. But that’s not the right outlook to have for skiing. After thinking about it some more, I had a few realizations. Everyone falls down. Everyone face-plants into the snow. And everyone somehow accidentally and unintentionally ends up going down the mountain backwards. It’s like riding a bike: the more you try, the better you get. But you don’t get any better without making a few mistakes along the way. So with this new found perspective, I strapped two fiberglass boards once again to my feet and slid over the mountain’s icy edge.
In my life so far I’ve learned that sometimes you have to just throw yourself over the edge of a mountain and figure things out on the way down, metaphorically speaking of course. The greatest lessons I’ve learned have been while doing, not while watching.
And I think that’s what this whole study abroad experience is about: plunging head first into an entirely new place and culture and figuring it all out along the way. There is no guidebook or website or travel blog that can fully prepare someone to experience a brand new way of life and thinking. Yes, we may fall down and icy patches will be along the way but we have to pick ourselves up, learn from the problems and bumps in the road and keep going on down the trail. Just like in skiing: the more times you try, the more you will learn.
We had three great days on the mountain. I fell. But I got up and I learned and I am no longer as afraid to slide down a mountain as I was before.
Today, the students leave for their first independent travel experience. In the same way I went off the edge of a mountain, they are leaping from the relative comfort of our home in Florence and in to the foggy unknown of traveling to unfamiliar places. It is inevitable: things will not go exactly as planned and problems will happen. But that is a part of the learning experience. Just like I put two skis on my feet and went for it, they too have to leap headfirst and learn along the way.
I am so excited to see what the students learn from this travel experience. I can’t fully put it into words but somehow traveling changes us. I guess it’s one of those “you have to do it, to understand it” kind of things.
Grant, assistant to the director
Our trip to Rome consisted of four intense days visiting sites all over the city including St. Paul Outside the Wall, the Roman Forum, Colosseum, St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery and many other sites.
Our trip to Rome is unlike any of our other group trips in that we do not use onsite teachers. Instead, each student is assigned a site or topic to research beforehand and then has to teach the rest of the group when we arrive in their given location while in Rome. Each student becomes the information source for the rest of the group to learn from.
We are together during the mornings and some afternoons but the students are given free time each of the days to explore the city on their own so they can experience The Eternal City.
Almost every time I am in Rome with the students, someone asks me, "How many times have you done this, Mona?"
This semester, as I was standing in front of the church, Saint Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mure), I was asked this question. I don't know exactly how many times I have been to Rome or the church of Saint Paul but it must be over a hundred times. Typically the next question is, "Do you ever get tired of it?" I think, "How could anyone ever get tired of Rome?"
Saint Paul Outside the Walls is also one of those churches that leave a normal person with their mouths open in awe or their eyes full of wonder at the majesty of the church. The nave is bigger than a football field! In my less sacred moments I have thought it would be fun to roller skate inside. But in my more thoughtful moments I think what a magnificent offering to God those people of the 5th century gave. To build a cathedral in such proportions in a world that did not have the modern building techniques of today must have been quite an undertaking. And to think that Paul is buried just under the alter. After walking the vast expanse of the nave you can visit his tomb.
I enjoy seeing everyone's reaction to this amazing building. Being in Rome with a different group of people makes Rome different. It changes every time I go. Sometimes the small stones that the Romans so appropriately call "pietrine" (or "little Saint Peters") are wet with rain. Sometimes the pietrine are covered with colorful confetti that the children have left behind from their Carnevale celebrations. I sometimes look at the the pietrine as an obstacle to my weak knees but still try to soldier on because I know that around the corner there will be something special or wonderful to see. Traveling with the students is such a joy and I am always happy to see their reactions and see their appreciation grow for a city that is one of the loveliest cities in the world.
Happy birthday, Leah J!
Be sure to check out the article about HUF in the most recent Harding magazine. It is a beautiful piece that brings the HUF experience full circle by sharing perspectives from a mother, who participated in the program 16 years ago, and her children, who come this past fall semester.