MEXICO Dispatch #2 (Christmas)

12/24/15

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     Today we sent Estrallita (1200', Grade 5.11a) after setting out at 7:00AM. We got to the base at 8:00AM and were back on the ground by 1:00PM. (Needless to say, we timed this better than our ascent of Dope Ninja earlier in the week). The climb was absolutely beautiful and Josh even freed most of the route with a single fall on the 20', 5.11a section.

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We then cleaned up and headed into town for Christmas Eve festivities, watched "It's A Wonderful Life" with our El Buho friends before playing some mean "orange ball," in which guys gather in a circle, throw an orange into the air, and juggle it a certain number of times before it is "catchable," after which you peg the snot out of someone until the fruit finally explodes, splitting its peel.

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After passing the time late into the evening, we watched the mad Mexican midnight fiesta that is Christmas Eve, where all sorts of fireworks explode in the distance. Mexico is sound. The firework of choice is the loudest available and the goal of a house PA system seems to be to blast your party tunes so brazenly that the neighborhood knows they're invited over. 

At 3:00AM we hitched back to the Pagoda for some well-needed rest. 

12/25/16

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     Today, after three full days of climbing, was a full rest day. We went into Monterrey to see the new Star Wars Movie, barely catching our bus back. Pretty unremarkable really; unless, of course, you consider that we spent our Christmas in the heart of Mexico, watching an American movie, unable to speak the language needed to understand how to get around in said city. 

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MEXICO Dispatch #1

The following is from a journal kept during my recent trip to Mexico, taken in the winter of 2015.

(Addendum)  We visited Hidalgo in December of 2015, as perhaps two hundred other international travelers had, for the rock climbing that the mountains of El Potrero Chico offered. Interest had waned for the area on account of Mexico's ongoing cartel situation, which had resulted in a mass assassination and death of a few tourists near Hidalgo four years prior. Me and Josh, with two weeks PTO, utilized the Christmas holidays of our respective offices to meet our friend John, who, with a fluency with the language and local connection, insisted that the risks were overblown. 

12/20/15 11:00PM

     I showed up to the terminal expecting to kill time for an hour before boarding. I quickly realized that the central Dallas greyhound station is sketchy! It was an unpleasant reminder of class disparity and how fortunate I am. By 4:00AM, I was in San Antonio, where I had to kill another two hours before the bus departed for Laredo, TX. Not pleasant. By 10:00AM I had arrived in Laredo, where we were informed in Spanish undecipherable to me that the border would take six hours to cross. Needless to say, the majority of the bus vacated. With little desire to change travel plans in a foreign language, I stuck it out. This turned out to be in my favor as the border crossing took less than an hour, meaning we were running according to schedule. Perplexing.

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I'll admit the language barrier seems more serious that I had imagined. I have taken other trips to South America, but this was definitely the first time I went totally native in choice of transportation. A friendly man with his son helped me vaguely understand what was going on, but it was very much a gesture heavy day. Unrelated to this, the border was ridiculously easy to cross as an American; I was worried about the thirty pounds of coffee and twelve-pack of beer I had brought with me  (as well as all the metal climbing gear) but no one batted an eye through customs. 

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Passing through Nuevo Laredo in a bus was haunting; ghost towns and shanty villas with wood cook fires smoking in the distance dotted the "tollroad." The first toll-booth was abandoned; whether from disrepair, staffing problems, or danger was unclear. The next stretch of road was typical prairie lands and far mountains reminiscent of the deep hill country and Big-Bend areas of my own state; brush on sagebrush with Joshua-Tree like cacti and brown grass for days. Scrub-oak and the occasional hay bale were spread throughout. 

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As we entered Monterrey, we passed the Federales compound with its high walls, barbed wire, and watchtowers. The outer city was littered with the crooked remains of concrete structures that seemed to have been hit by mortars. The national police were seen riding in kevlar, standing in the back of moving pickups whose beds where encaged in steel railings that supported their rifles. 

Upon arrival in Monterrey, I had to haggle my way from the bus station to the airport. I found a kind man who exchanged twenty dollars for three hundred pesos (a fair rate) so that I could catch a cab. (I had expected a money exchange in Laredo, but had not had time to exchange what with the border crossing confusion). The cab ride was as all cab rides are in dis-established nations, terrifying until you realized everybody is driving as manically as your cabbie. For example, a man was juggling bowling pins in the middle of a four way intersection (presumably for the exposure). We barreled straight at the man, who, finally realizing predicting our collision, simply sidestepped. 

I then met up with Josh Moorman at the airport, John Brothers picked us up in his truck, and we headed for the small town of Hidalgo that was our ultimate destination. The first evening drug on. We visited John's residential workplace, El Buho, and for some reason sat down with a group of twenty strangers from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to watch the first Star Wars movie on a projector, before making our way to the lodgings we had arranged, where we crashed hard into bed. 

12/22/15

     Our first day of climbing was relatively eventful. After a late start, we got a few climbs at Wonderwall and the Scrutinizer out of the way before launching up a multi-pitch route named Dope Ninja (600', Grade 5.7) at roughly 3:00PM. We were imagining linked pitches, where the leading climber would cover 200' instead of 100' at a time before bringing his partner up and switching leads, but this was impossible on account of the traversing features. We instead ended up taking a long-ass time to summit as we had to lead each of the seven pitches individually; I lead the final pitch in the dark by headlamp as Josh followed by the light I threw from above, since we hadn't the forethought to bring two. Slowly, safely, we finally got down at 10:00PM after three and half hours rappelling the 600 or so feet of the climb. I doubt we'll be jumping on another multi-pitch in the afternoon after this debacle. 

ITALY Dispatch #4 (San Luca)

January 11

     Today was the token shopping experience of the mission trip: a weekly market opened in Bologna on this day. I accidentally overslept and woke to wander on my own and found myself gravitating towards the back of the market, where the Gypsies, Nigerians, and general hippies had set up shop. I plopped myself down at a stall that specialized in maintaining dreadlocks and had my roots worked on. This was the single biggest mistake of my trip. 
     It took four hours. And then I just told them to stop, they would have kept going. I also had hastened out of my room without a jacket and the mild 55 degree whether became gradually unbearable sitting motionless in the shade. Also, for those of you who have never had dreadlocks, consider that the incessant pulling and tearing that accompanied the work also became gradually more tender and unbearable. I'll admit I was rather stubborn and took it as a battle of pride as I sat listening to the multilingual conversation drifting between the barbers. This one badass looking lion of a man with meticulous Bob Marley congo dreads was taking it after all. 
     There is a significant immigration crisis in Italy; one that is much more real than our border issues in Texas and, unlike Texas, the immigrants in Italy often are just moving through and headed somewhere in Europe. The Nigerian stall workers were really fascinating; their perspective on the issue was real and they were continually surprised that I didn't want to share what they were smoking. I broke the mold of hippie/dreadhead/whiteboy/world-traveler, I suppose. There was no real religious discussion though broached, and it didn't feel appropriate to push. The experience was a good reminder not to generalize the identity of a varied country, which I have perhaps overdone in the last few posts. 
     Once I met up with the group, we headed towards the outskirts of town for an experience I had been eagerly awaiting all trip. San Luca is a former monastery on the edge of town, perched at a vantage from which most of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany were visible on a clear day. The three mile ascent to the monastery (which was very mild) was entirely covered by portcullis that were raised in honor of an occasion in far history when the city was flooding and people were dying. The monks, praying in the monastery, felt lead to carry an Icon of the Virgin down to city and the the flood ceased the moment it reached the town. In honor of this a yearly procession was held and the portcullis was raised in the brilliantly pragmatic plan that, upon future floods (or a rainy festival), the Icon could descend without being tarnished. 
     As we approached it became obvious that a heavy fog was going to make any view impossible. We proceeded nonetheless and witnessed the beautiful chapel wrapped in fog. A mass was occurring inside and there was a semi-full congregation. The group simply entered half-way through and sheepishly took seats and then, awkwardly, exited. Everyone else was unaware of the severity of this, I think. Mass is a very different affair than a sermon; entering and exiting signifies something with much more occasion. This was probably our greatest cultural faux-pas of the trip. 
     Afterwords we split up and I ended up hanging out alone with the STINT team. We went and had a drink and I purchased as much wine as seemed fiscally reasonable to gift to my parents. I asked a lot of questions about their time in Italy and what advice they would have for this sort of work. We passed the evening and, saying goodbyes, I realized I had come to be rather close to this team and would miss them. Ciao belle. And the guys too, of course. 

Addendum

     Thus is the story of my trip to Italy concluded. There was a sense of closure. At the beginning of the trip, I was jaded, hardened, bitter, and rather unhappy. This, for me, is not actually an uncommon feeling. I'm not the happiest person, but the last few years have been rather hard and I haven't owned my circumstances in a healthy way. I have lived in a fog for quite some time. The imagery of vision and fog, is rather emotional for me and has been at the heart of my intellectual life for the last three years. I've often felt unable to see God in my suffering, as if He's veiling himself somehow and leaves me shouting at air. Because of this, things most people could cope with become bigger problems and drive wedges into every other aspect of my life. This last year has probably been the second season of rock bottom depression in my life, smothered in fog. 
     On this trip, however, I experienced something unnatural. For no reason comprehensible, each day was a new day. Perhaps it was the nature of travel, but I think it more likely that it was the nature of purpose. Of confused, but arms-open living each day intent upon what exactly God wanted from me. And the answer, it seemed, was that He wanted nothing other than my attention. And the result was a gradual defrosting of my heart and something I had not experienced in ages (unaware of the drought), dare I say it, joy. 
     I like to think I have been granted a unique perspective on some things in life unfortunately, through the lack of those things. Strength, when I have been a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter than any peer since second grade. Hope, when I have moved through seasons of darkness that pushed me so close to ending my life. Love, having been hard and unwilling to receive it when offered and vanquished in the few places I sought it out in vulnerability. A poor man knows well the weight of gold but this 'perspective' does not go beyond the intellect and I have always felt a beggar in these. Perhaps this is my own fault, but I am weak, hopeless, and joyless to the day. I don't know how to close the gap. This trip has softened something in me, but I'm cautious as the desert wandered afraid of drowning in the long longed for water. 
     I made one personal purchase in Italy. I bought a print of San Luca the day before we were going to ascend. I was so excited to see the land clearly from above; I wanted to revel in the vantage of the heights. But the fog felt fitting. It felt like a resounding 'wait' and I wonder for what. I guess I'll keep writing this Epic Poem I have been at work on for two years now; titled (of course) Among the Fog. I guess I'll keep moving day by day back towards the longed for light and chase that remnant joy.

ITALY Dispatch #3

January 09

Just a heads up, this is a long one. It was quite the day.

     Today was totally frustrating and then relaxing and then more relaxing; it was a full day. My ministry partner (who I won't name) had a very strange personality and it was very difficult to do anything. Each conversation they initiated turned immediately into a debate and I felt as if we were shoving doctrine down people's throats rather than demonstrating Christ. I eventually broke off from him and wandered the campus on my own (not sure if this was okay.) I found myself gravitating back towards the cafe after looking around the campus. 
Campuses in Europe are very different from our residential American campuses. The buildings are integrated into the surrounding architecture and it isn't uncommon for commercial buildings, civic spaces, or museums to jut up against class buildings (where only one room is used for teaching). Most students commute on the metro, rather than living nearby. The cafe, however, is as collegiate as it gets. Students fill the tables during the afternoon and conversation flits on the breeze. There's also a gypsy (think rasta/emo/homeless) group that always hangs out in one corner and looks intimidating with their pit-bulls (on a veritable chain) and heavy smoke cloud. 
     Did I mention that everyone smokes? Espresso and nicotine have a powerful influence here. The tempo of life is softly alluring. Men on corners drag deeply and then go about their way, no cells phones blinking, as they focus on walking alone. An individual enters a cafe; there's one on every corner (though not as graceful as you might imagine "Cafe/Tobbaccoria" suggests a gas station vibe). Italians are very pragmatic with their vices, it seems. 
     In the evening we convened for an Aperitif that we were hosting. The plan was to send out blanket invitations throughout the week and then connect anyone we met to the full-time missionaries. Aperitif is essentially a cocktail party that's a pretty regular occurrence. (Keep in mind that there aren't clubs and organizations on European campuses like there are in the states. A ministry function wasn't a hard sell since there aren't weekly meetings that conflict; students spend every evening socializing and going to aperitif with friends. It was uncomfortable at first since the English speakers dominated the room, but students gradually showed up and made the event less awkward. Several students wanted to get plugged in with the STINT team and exchanged numbers. 
     As the event winded down, we were released for the evening and the three guys on the trip headed out to explore the town. The guys were both younger than me and posed the most serious ethical dilemma I faced on the trip. Every evening, we headed out to explore Bologna (which was hands down the best decision of the trip). We were all looking for cultural exchanges, but the other guys (both underage in American terms) wanted to check out bar culture in particular. (Remember that the drinking age abroad is 18). I told them at the front of the trip what I thought about their decision to drink (that it was irresponsible and somewhat contrary to being on a mission trip), but also that it was their decision; that I was not their chaperon or parent. 
     I ended up making the decision to go along each night and so, this night, we ended up at a pub with some of the college students we had met that day (Mattio, Antonio, and Roderico). It turned out to be the most genuine ministry experience of the whole trip. First observation: Italian drinking is completely different from American drinking. Drinks do not come as pints; even in a pub. Everyone orders half-pints and usually stops at one or two. Getting drunk (or even tipsy) is seen as juvenile behavior and there is less reckless abandon in this area (perhaps driven by frugality) for the college age group. We ended up sharing all sorts of common ground and had really good pub conversation that soon turned to the question of faith.
     Mattio asked why we had chosen to come to Italy and, upon explaining that we had come as part of a faith based organization (having been cautioned to avoid starting conversations with the gospel, but to use the word 'organization' to gain credibility,) he asked what the difference was between protestantism and catholicism. I took this as a carte blanche opportunity to explain the whole gospel, defend the Catholic church, and explain that one difference was an emphasis on the personal relationship with Christ (priesthood of the believer, if you will). It was a weird moment, sitting in the pub with the undivided attention of three young Italians and my two Texan friends, and pontificating evangelically (see what I did there?). 
     They listened attentively, but as soon as I turned the question towards them of what they personally believed the moment was over. A brief awkwardness lulled over our conversation before my fellow Texans deflected the conversation back to trivialities. This was probably appropriate; we were strangers after all. I guess my hope for the ministry here and for any evangelical organizations that follows is that the Catholic Church wouldn't be as thoroughly dismissed as it currently is.
     In the process of learning more about CRU in Italy, it became obvious that they had made no overtures or efforts to collaborate with Christians across the ecclesial divide and that their ministry plan often involved bashing the Church (Big C). The proof of this is that they continuously claimed to be the only evangelical presence on campus (implying they were the only Christian influence) and were ignorant about the parish congregations and diocese lines I had easily found with a cursory Google search before coming, thinking the ecclesial life of local Catholics might be relevant to ministry in Italy. This made me pretty uncomfortable. 
     Doctrinal differences aside, I cannot believe that the Faith of all Christendom from roughly Christ to Luther is devoid of Life here in Italy; that a millennium of incredibly scholastic and dynamic faith has been annulled by the 95 Theses overnight and that the innumerable pious mother of Italy do not know Christ simply because they carry rosaries and pray ceaselessly. I don't think the role of a foreign, nondenominational (aka Protestant/Baptist) mission attempt to spread the gospel in Italy should become an attempt to convert people into a faith articulated as mutually exclusive from the faith that their grandparents (and often parents) still practice over and beyond an attempt to actually talk about Christ, because this is what I saw working with CRU; the conversation was always "how protestants are different from Catholics" instead of how a Christ centered life is different from a life of bondage. Rant over. 
     We had a good evening and then retired to our rooms, exchanging Facebook information and pleasantries as we walked back in the night like Italians: stoic, quiet and grand. 

January 10

     Today we ventured out of Bologna to test the waters at a University in Milan that CRU wanted to start a ministry at. I was paired with Alicia, one of the STINT missionaries whom I had teamed up with before. In hindsight, it was a rather interesting (though understandable) approach to pair guys and girls for ministry. Today in particular was rather...well, interesting; I spent the day wandering about a mysterious city with a beautiful girl who spoke Italian and loved Jesus. Read between the lines. It was really fun, especially as we approached students, because Alicia truly was semi-fluent in Italian. I could follow along and understood the conversation and though I had to frame my own responses in English, I was able to work in considerably more Italian words than before and felt (almost) as if I could truly learn the language this way. The whole declension aspect of Italian would, of course, ruin me in reality, but it was nice to imagine. 
     It was also really cool to dig deeper into what it meant to be a full time missionary and hear firsthand what the joys and struggles of living life as an alien can be. The day gave me greater empathy for CRU. As we reconvened for lunch, we again got on the sub and made our way to downtown Milan. (The flexible plan had been to visit a different part of Milan, but I convinced our team leader that "yes, the Milanese Duomo is a very big deal." (Duomo simply means the central church, but if you ask someone if they have seen The Duomo it is implied that you are speaking of Milan. It is literally THE Church [little C]). We arrived just before dinner, saw the magnificent structure, and then climbed on top. It was certainly the most intimate experience of a cathedral on the trip. It gave scale and scope to the idea. Every inch was ornamented in statuary and relief; unique statues and carvings, every inch! 
     Also had an exciting event when Philip and I got separated from the group, who ended up at a different Restaurant than planned, and we had to get technologically creative to find them. It was rather uneventful as far as escapades go and not unexpected (we were the pair that tended to branch out from the group; more comfortable with navigation and chafing against the chaperoning.) We then had another long bus ride back to Bologna and another evening of wandering the town, though uneventful. Let me reiterate, these nightly excursions were the most fascinating experiences culturally as we were able to actually meet Italians without an agenda. 

ITALY Dispatch #2

January 07

     We started the first day in Bologna by meeting the full time STINT (Short Term International) team. The married couple who are long term missionaries in Bologna live in a two story loft that overlooks the city. The loft galleria is a small meeting room encircled by wall to wall windows with a view of the terraced, terra cotta shingled skyline. It's a perfect study and refectory and is used by the STINT team as a planning and small group center. Bellissimo (most beautiful,) you would think in Italian (and use this kind of sentence structure as well, no?) We had a devotional time there and clarified the goal of the trip: to meet Italian students, gauge their level of spiritual interest, and get them connected to the STINT and long term ministry in Bologna. 
     The day was then spent meeting students in the Mensa (cafeteria) and in the piazza (Italian for courtyard; pronounced "pee-aht-za") outside la scuderria (a cafe). We split up into pairs and I was partnered with Maddison, who had been to Bologna the summer before on a six week long trip. We immediately ran into a friend she had made on the previous trip and invited her to an event we were planning for Thursday night. 
     From there we walked under vaulted porticoes and over cobbled pathways towards the Mensa to grab lunch. We sat down near Bolognese students, struck up conversations in English if possible (if not, then pidgin Italian) and tried to make acquaintances and slowly bring up faith. I found myself able to easily follow the flow of the conversation because of my background in Latin and Tex-Mex Spanish (feel free to laugh), but unable to pronounce the simplest of phrases. This was my first experience with what is sometimes called initiative evangelism and I found the experience daunting, difficult, and uncomfortable. Maddison was a pro, of course, and made the process easier with a little knowledge of Italian. 
     After lunch, we went to the Cafe and I ordered my first genuinely Italian shot of espresso. It was oily, heavy, and musky, without any subtle flavors. It was so very Italian; I never saw any Italians wearing a hint of color despite visiting three very different cities and spending seven days in the country. We sat down with a few students and invited them to our main event of the week: a common social experience called Apperitivo (think drinks and hor'devries.) It was a solid day of meeting Italian students, learning about the culture, and experiencing their aversion towards Religion. In the evening we had a group dinner and briefing before returning to the hotel. 

January 08


     The second full day of on campus ministry was spent meeting students in the Mensa (cafeteria) and la scuderria (the cafe) again. I was paired with Alicia, a TCU grad who is in her second year of full time ministry on STINT in Bologna. She speaks a reasonable amount of Italian and is easy to talk with. It was great to discover what full time ministry looks like from our conversations. 
     When we got to the cafe I saw a pair of guys that looked interesting. An impeccably dressed Italian student named Stephano was sitting next to a traveler named Mattimeo, who's matted (and dreadlocked) hair and Deuter ACT pack seemed to promise common ground. We introduced ourselves and found that Stephano spoke fluent English (not uncommon) and was a Philosophy major preparing for a thesis concerning Jean Paul Sartre, a French Existentialist (Simplified: there is no creator, we exist because we exist, there is no before life or after life, to be true to yourself is to truly exist, breaking away from tradition and conscience is the only freedom. Simplified: Seize life as you will. It's all very terrifying when you consider this was the intellectual culture of the twentieth century; this was the sort of thing taught between WWI and WWII, when the Hitler youth were being educated. Yikes!) 
     It's worth noting that the University of Bologna is still considered to be the central communist theory think tank of Europe, evidenced by the prolific graffiti slogans ("We are the 99%") and frequent non-violent protests. It's worth noting that there are around 100,000 students in attendance at this University that go into various careers across Europe and worth noting that upon Survey, the vast majority identify as agnostic with existential leanings. It is also worth noting that there is only one protestant church in Bologna and that Agape Italia is the only campus ministry. 
     Despite this dreary backdrop, we had a jovial conversation with Stephano. He was gregarious and good natured. His friend Mattimeo was traveling across Europe, thumb out, with no destination in mind (I'll admit I was a little jealous) and despite the fact that he could not speak any English, we were able to hold a whole conversation with body language. It was a cool experience in that most of the initiative evangelism we had previously attempted had felt forced, awkward, and prickly. The conversation with Stephano and Mattimeo was easy however, and I found myself getting to listen to some of Mattimeo's Italian poetry and share some of my own in English. We invited them to the Apperitivo, but Stephano was unable to make it on account of exams. Alicia had to leave for a meeting, so we parted ways with much to think about.

ITALY Dispatch #1 (Vatican)

The following is the journal I kept during a brief trip to Italy in January, 2014. The trip was through the TCU Campus Crusade group, a missions agency in Fort Worth. My camera was stolen shortly after the trip, so we must rely on the text of my journal and your imagination.

January 05

        Today I crossed the big pond for the first time in my life. We landed in Frankfurt, Germany after a ten hour flight from Texas and then flew across the Alps and into Italy. I cannot possibly express the effect such a vision has on a climber. I sat by the window as we ascended through celestial troughs and billowing luminous clouds. I've never seen such shapes as play out upon the slopes of the upper hemisphere. There were clouds blanketed soft as back-country powder set against rolling columns of fog. We flew among the clouds and our visibility was impenetrably flooded with white each time we passed through a cloud. I cannot imagine how exhilarating it feels to pilot a plane through such conditions.
      And then I saw the Alps. They stood grounded and visceral below the effervescent clouds; innumerable peaks frothed in copious snow and smothered in the silence of winter. I realized that I had forgotten to take any pictures in this interval, my mind having been fully occupied in the revelrous rapture of the alpine sights and found my descriptions limited by my vocabulary, but so freely drawn from the imagination that an elevated vernacular felt neither misplaced nor grasping.
      Struck by this, I had no further ability to be surprised when Italy sprawled before me. I had no idea how bounteous Italy's pink speckled hills appeared from the air. The hills lay stretched out like the follicles of a leaf lain among the autumn grass. The colors were organic and earthen, born out of the mud-stained Tiber and Rhine. All this before even setting my eyes upon Rome itself.
      My second flight I spoke briefly with a Sicilian man named Antonio. He was around my age and teaches Italian Literature. The conversation wasn't very deep, but he gave me his contact info in case I ever travel to Sicily. As we landed in Rome and got on a bus into the city, I ended up sitting next to another Sicilian man. Salvatore has the equivalent of a masters in Software Engineering and works in an entry level IT position. He was gregarious and we got to talking about sports and politics. I had him catch me up on public sentiment over Berlesconi (an extremely powerful media mogul who has been involved in center right politics and since been kicked out of office), local soccer matches and grudges, and the outlook for university graduates in Italy. 
     Salvatore voiced a couple of concerns that he sees as prevalent in the Italian mindset. I already knew that job prospects for well educated young men were scarce, but it seems the real frustration is that the retirement age for Italians keeps rising. The old generation of fifty to seventy year old men (Catholic by heritage) hold a significant portion of the limited job market and there are few opportunities for the younger generation, who are openly and widely agnostic as well as turned off to the church because of Vatican Politics and formal religion.
Salvatore went on to claim that most Italians have no hope for their economy, in their government, or in its future. I pried gently into what role he feels or has seen the church take in the situation. He was very reticent to talk about religion (like most Italians), but admitted that he was intrigued by the new pope. As the bus arrived at our stop, we exchanged business cards and he also told me to hit him up if I'm ever in Sicily. 
     Bearing in mind that Salvatore is not an official spokesperson for his nation, I wonder if the students we will be meeting with in Bologna will have the same frustrations. We spent the evening site-seeing in Rome and witnessing the crazy rush hour tradition of Italy. At six every day, Italians go on a walk. Dinner is not served until eight at the earliest, so they hit the town between work and dinner; think Manhattan metro rush meets Jersey Boardwalk strut, where everyone wears black, smokes, and parades their latest paramour about the town. It appears the Epicureans have finally taken over Rome. 

January 06

        This morning we headed to the Vatican to see St. Peter's basilica before getting on a train bound for Bologna. The Vatican is insane and (for anyone with an art history background) overwhelming. I felt myself wishing I had spent more time studying, but surprised with my ability to make out the numerous Latin inscriptions. It was so monumental and severe. The various statues of the Saints, Popes, and etc are very threatening; they loom over the room with outstretched hands and pointing fingers. It very much has the feel of a courtroom in which you are being judged. 
        I wonder if my experience of St. Peters mirrors that of young Italians. I doubt it was the intention of the artists to emphasize the justice and judgement aspects of Christianity. Perhaps it's just that marble columns and open space make you feel like you are on your knees in court; a criminal. I can't wait to get to Bologna and spend time with the students at the University. I need to process and talk over some of these perceptions with them so that I can better understand how they perceive the Church and whether the gospel is perhaps overshadowed by the institution. 
        My prayer request for Salvatore, for Italian students, and for the next week is that we can come into this culture and present the gospel without having to face off against the prevalent anti-Catholic sentiment. Pray with me for those ministering in Italy; that they may empathize with the despair and hopelessness felt by the Italians and point towards the gospel as life-sustaining and hopeworthy. Pray for Salvatore and for our witness in engaging similar Italians, who are guarded against churchy words and blanket promise, but perhaps unfamiliar with the gospel narrative and the real meaning of Christ coming into the world to live among us and die for us.