Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 4

In Part 1, I write about Taiwan’s brush with SARS in 2002-03, the beginnings of the crisis in January, and Taiwan’s initial reactions that put us on a path to getting ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

In Part 3, I write about going back to school, watching the COVID-19 situation explode in Europe and the US, and why US higher education has made an epic mistake.

Part 4:

When I started writing my updates about COVID-19, I didn’t think there would be a Part 4. It seemed clear to me that the story of the coronavirus in Taiwan was a three part story, and it was holding steady. The focus would now be on the rest of the world, and anything I could write to help friends and family now encountering the same thing would be a good idea. Really, we must never think these things, because “That doesn’t apply to me or my country (anymore)” is exactly what got everyone in hot water in this pandemic. (The sheer hubris!) In short, last week, Taiwan has been battered by a new “second” wave of COVID-19 cases, imported from Europe and the US, and in response, has locked down its borders with all other countries, accepting no foreigners who do not already hold residence here. Those moves have definitely alarmed people, and now, supermarkets are busy right up until closing time, with much more empty shelves. We even saw an hour-long line for getting face masks at the local pharmacy. It took some of us by surprise, but it shouldn’t have, because among the many lessons to be learned in the COVID-19 pandemic is that the unexpected can, has, and will happen.

How did it happen? Even the Minister of Health Chen Shih-Chung has admitted that the authorities should have seen this coming earlier. On March 12 and March 13, the CDC reported two imported cases, the second case being an American man who had been infected by four friends from the US. Steve reported to me this grim evidence that the virus was much more widespread in the US than previously thought. The next day, the CDC imposed Level 2 restrictions on California, New York State, and Washington. On March 15, six new cases were confirmed in Taiwan, all of them imported. One of them was a high school student who had just come back from Greece. His homeroom at school was quarantined as a precaution, and when several days later, a second case was reported at his school, the entire school was shut down. These sorts of policies have enabled Taiwan to get ahead of the virus clusters, but as a result, several municipalities started announcing a policy which was quickly taken up by the entire Ministry of Education on Monday, March 16: no students or teachers at elementary through high schools were allowed to travel off-island until the end of the spring semester. On March 18, Taiwan moved the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand onto its Level 3 warning list, and at the same time also closed its borders to foreigners completely. Now, even Taiwanese citizens and those with residence certificates like us had to undergo an obligatory 14-day quarantine if we were traveling back to the island. The same day, 23 new cases were reported. And on March 20, Taiwan moved the entire world up to Level 3. The same day, 27 new cases showed up in Taiwan, with another 18 new cases diagnosed the next day on March 21. Finally, on March 20, we received one of only three emails we’ve gotten from the American Institute in Taiwan throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, tersely announcing a rare Level 4 Advisory, basically saying, “Come back to the US or stay abroad indefinitely.”

In the space of a single week, the quarantine and travel restrictions had changed with dizzying speed, keeping pace with the doubling of cases to a total of 169 as of Sunday, March 22. In fact, rather than wait for further restrictions to who could and could not enter school, with just such a mobile population, our school decided to start spring break early by a few days, and we left school on Wednesday, March 18, hoping to resume everything next Monday, March 30. Currently, that’s still the understanding, but with everything that’s happening, a week seems like a very long time. All of a sudden, even our trip on island to Yilan later this week is starting to look slightly irresponsible, and Steve has been going back and forth on whether we should make the 30-minute trip by cab, hotel shuttle, or public bus or train.

On March 19, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen went on record as saying the next two weeks are a crucial test for Taiwan. Given that the borders have been effectively shut down and all incoming travelers must complete a mandatory quarantine, if the jump to community transmission happens, it will be right now. So how is quarantine being enforced? Here is a FAQ for passengers just arriving in Taiwan, and a flowchart showing what happens to passengers (though it’s outdated). When they get here, Taiwan has arranged for quarantine-ready taxis to take them to their residence anywhere on island or a pre-arranged quarantine hotel. The government is even helping with subsidies for travelers or family members of travelers who need those hotel rooms. (This is a pretty ingenious move given that the entire travel industry in Taiwan is suffering badly, just as their global counterparts, so giving them business that also facilitates safe entry into the country is a great idea.) Once at home, the government will use your cellphone to track your movements, and may call you several times a day to ensure that you’re where you said you would stay for 14 days. In fact, this tweet from a Taiwanese college student has gone viral (I’m so sorry) this week, showing the speed and seriousness of the quarantine policy:

To alleviate further stress, people are being offered NT $1,000, which is just over USD $30 per day to stay in quarantine. While some have expressed unease over these regulations, I have come around to the notion that it’s worth avoiding the risk of infection from these travelers, whether Taiwanese or foreign, because people are going to take risks! Early on in January, one man was found to have avoided quarantine and shown up at a Kaohsiung dance club, and eventually he was fined nearly USD $10,000 for not disclosing his symptoms. In March, after the COVID-19 pandemic was already broadly known, one man evaded quarantine and was actually found at the Kaohsiung International Airport trying to fly out of the country. He was eventually fined to the full extent of the regulations, for USD $33,000, which is a pretty penny indeed. Right now, telecom providers are working closely with the government to make this sort of tracking possible, but I feel pretty confident that if any country’s government is going to give up this sort of power later, it’s going to be Taiwan.

Though community spread looks unlikely given the strict quarantine procedures, there are other concerns for foreigners like us. Many expats here, including a lot of friends, take advantage of Taiwan’s generous visa waiver policies, which have long indicated that if you just transit in and out of Taiwan every 90 days (or 3 months), you can basically stay here indefinitely. No one in immigration bats an eye seeing your passport full of blue exit and entry stamps. On our very first trip to Taiwan in 2013, we met a British man who bragged about having spent 20 years here, while never getting legal working or living status. It’s very common for people to talk about going to Hong Kong or Okinawa for a day on a “visa run”, even though it’s not very accurate because you don’t have a visa. Given Taiwan’s new policies last week, though, that was starting to look like an untenable situation. What if you couldn’t come back after your next run, and that was due to happen in another 10 days? Where would you go with so many flights cancelled? What if your home country was Italy or Iran or the United States? Those visa-exempt expats aren’t even the largest population of foreigners in the country. That would be the migrant worker population of over 700,000 people, primarily caregivers and domestic workers from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. It’s possible that those workers if infected with COVID-19 would not choose to get care or come forward in time (thus putting more people in danger) if they were worried about being caught for overstaying their visa or working without papers; the National Immigration Agency currently estimate 48,000 plus of those migrant workers have overstayed. So the government also had to step in and make changes to their immigration policies, reinstating an amnesty program that softened penalties and fines to the minimum, and a day later, gave a 30-day extension to those who were caught in the situation of having to make another visa run. More kudos to the Taiwanese government for making these pragmatic changes.

Given all the news in Taiwan, the mood in Taipei is decidedly a weird mixture of the apocalyptic and nonchalant, not unlike what is going on in the United States. On Thursday, just after the border shutdown was announced, a friend warned me on Thursday not to go to Carrefour, our large local supermarket. “The scene in there might make you go into labor right away,” she joked dryly. We ended up going around 9:30 pm anyway, just before closing, to pick up a few staples. Toilet paper was pretty low, and the shelves of rice were half empty. Astonishingly, all the canned soups and beans were gone, as were instant noodles. While produce shelves were full of fruits and vegetables, the meat section was practically wiped out. On the other hand, on Saturday, Steve and I ventured downtown to a few destinations and found shockingly large amounts of people out in the parks, definitely not social distancing. While the 80-degree temperatures certainly encouraged hanging out outside and the risk of transmission is much lower in non-enclosed spaces, we were still surprised to see Huashan Creative Park full of people with many dogs, kids, and picnic blankets. After hitting up a yarn shop downtown, we made our way to Dadaocheng Wharf, thinking it’d be a nice outdoor place to have dinner from some of the boutique food trucks that have sprung up there in the past year, and we found a similar scene of hundreds of people mingling, few of them with face masks on. “Are these the same people who just filled their entire cart with twenty packs of instant noodles?” I asked Steve blankly. With a grimly set jaw, all Steve would say was that the next case was probably in the crowd in front of us. We left the park and took a taxi to a favorite pizza restaurant where we washed our hands and sprayed them with alcohol before eating, contemplating the mixed messages we were seeing this week.

Last week, Steve predicted that just as there was a before-9/11 and an after-9/11, there would be a before-COVID-19 and after-COVID-19. The best article I’ve seen so far that outlines what the future looks like is in MIT’s Technology Review: “We’re Not Going Back to Normal” (March 17, 2020). The silver lining is that it may lead to a better future, as Taiwan’s history has hinted. For the past four years, we have lived on this small island of 24 million people, which has had to become pretty darn scrappy in a constant fight for survival. Since 1949, Taiwan has faced the constant threat of annexation by force from China, and survived bombing crises and American derecognition, and become increasingly marginalized by the world. This constant vigilance against its larger neighbor has become a way of life here. I mean, this island still has an annual national air raid drill, when everyone has to stay off the street or risk a very hefty fine, which is something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. (I rode out last year’s in my favorite hot pot shop behind school.) That survival instinct is part of what has kept Taiwan alive and ready to respond. When in late December, Chinese social media started showing a buzz about a mysterious respiratory disease in Wuhan but then went dark quickly. Among other things, I think Taiwan picked up on that censorship and the fact that something might be going on in China. That helped them start fever screenings right away on flights to Taiwan from Wuhan on December 31, the same day that China informed the WHO there were cases of a severe, unknown pneumonia in Wuhan.

Meanwhile, in a place like the US, people keep writing articles with callbacks to the Spanish flu, to World War II, to the last time that the entire country mobilized around a single cause like this, instead of milling around aimlessly like insects. During a video call this weekend, a friend in Chicago stated soberly, “The United States is melting down.” What we’ve seen in the past two weeks with the worsening of situations in Europe and in the US makes me mortally afraid for the lives of people in the US and the lives of friends, family, and close acquaintances who are now doctors and nurses. We’ve stopped making plans three months out, after the birth of our child, or even six months out. Nothing seems so sure anymore. Previously rock-solid companies and organizations have wavered in the face of this disaster. It is incredibly difficult not to despair, however. California, New York, and Illinois only began enacting state-wide stay-at-home orders this week. It seems like authorities have just been dragging their feet, overly fearful of disrupting the economy or restricting travel (in this land of the free) that they have not been able to call for more swift and widespread action to save lives. We are incredibly grateful to be living in a country which takes health and such threats very seriously, with responsible and swift leadership at the helm, but what will happen to the country that we love when this is all over? What about our families? Who will be left? The future looks very uncertain to us. As articles repeatedly say, Taiwan has lessons to share with the rest of the world, but the US must first pull through this and be in a position to learn and change in the future. That is what seems up in the air right now.

This post brings us up to the present, just two months since the crisis began raging in Asia. As the situation changes in Taiwan, I hope to keep writing. For friends abroad, if this has been helpful to read, I hope you’ll also consider also writing down your story, with or without frequent citations to CDC press releases! As an inveterate blogger and note-keeper since fifth grade, I have always found it useful to write down my daily thoughts about small and big things happening in my life. I think we all realize now that this is a global event, something that all of us will look back on and remember where we were and how we got through it all together. Maybe it’s through a blog like this, or through art and poetry, or even through a family podcast. Perhaps we’ll reminisce in a better world where countries have learned how to become more resilient and robust, like Taiwan after SARS. Or perhaps we’ll recall these times while sitting in an apocalyptic wasteland toasting our dinner over an oil barrel fire. At the same time, misinformation and bad faith actors are pushing their agendas the world over, using this pandemic as an opportunity to seed doubt, fear, and hatred around the world. By writing my little bit of truth from my perspective to the best of my ability and preserving it for the rest of the world to see, I hope to combat that. You can too.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 3

In Part 1, I write about Taiwan’s brush with SARS in 2002-03, the beginnings of the crisis in January, and Taiwan’s initial reactions that put us on a path to getting ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

Part 3:

Though three weeks of extended break seemed like forever, they ended quite abruptly. On Monday, February 24, we went in to school for a fever screening training, which I was promptly excused from by my supervisor and our Head Nurse. Fortunately, school was not so short staffed that we needed a pregnant woman to man the stations! To speed up the entrance of over 2,300 students and 500 faculty and staff members into school every day between 7 and 8 am, nine stations were being set up around school at regular entrances, and teams of 2 people would take their positions at each station. One person would be responsible for using an infrared gun to take temperatures, and ensure that everyone registered below 37.5 Celsius. The best place to take the temperature was over the right or left eyebrow, and we were instructed to ask people to pull aside bangs to make it simple. The other person would be responsible for making sure that that person also stretched out their hand for a spritz of sanitizer, and if a student had a temperature of 37.5 Celsius or above, to take them to our quarantine room where they would be given a mask and instructed to wait until a parent could take them home. Both persons working the stations would wear a face mask for the duration of their time, and the nurses demonstrated the correct way to put on (and then NOT TOUCH) a face mask to make sure that it was working as necessary.

The next day, we headed to work for the first time in a month. At school, most people were enthusiastically greeting each other, and I remember walking up to colleagues in my department with a very big smile as they exclaimed over how big my belly had gotten since we had seen each other. However, it did seem much quieter than usual, with no parents sitting in the cafeteria talking to each other over a cup of coffee, and fewer people lingering about the school. Some Taiwanese staff wore a face mask even inside at school, and as a result, sometimes I could barely tell who was coming up to say hello and exclaim over my pregnancy and ask about my due date! Back in the office, my co-worker and I spent a good week trying to figure out our new workload, as the nature of my job had definitely changed, with fewer events to figure out and coordinate. Over the next two weeks, school also made other changes as the Ministry of Education gave guidelines: no gatherings over 200 people, school-wide events or events with off-island schools and organizations were canceled or postponed until the fall, and the cafeteria changed the operation of its usual salad and yogurt bars to leave fewer items in the open and to have all our bakery items entirely shrink-wrapped. Even fewer visitors were allowed on campus, and all who came had to declare their travel history to the school.

Despite those changes, normalcy had begun to settle in again in Taipei as schools re-opened and families resumed their daily schedules. We still made food at home several nights out of the week, but took alcohol wipes with us to restaurants when we ate out. At each restaurant or store, staff would invariably have a bottle of alcohol or sanitizing spray on the counter so that people could help themselves. On the MRT and public transit, we wore face masks, but out in the parks or on the street during the day, it was more like 50/50. People had either taken to heart the CDC’s reminders that masks were not necessary if you were healthy, or the rationing that had continued was taking its toll: either way, people were only wearing them where they needed to. And of course, we donned them for our monthly visit to the doctor’s at our hospital for my pregnancy check-ups.

Meanwhile, a different sort of shift had taken place as the COVID-19 situation continued developing around the world. On February 22, a friend shared an article on the pending pandemic nature of COVID-19, throwing the entire crisis into a different relief for me. According to the authors, “containment” is a strategy that cannot defeat an outbreak, only delay it. At this point, we were seeing that the situation in South Korea and Japan meant travel bans, quarantines, and contact tracing could not stop the epidemic, only slow it down. So what should communities and individuals be doing about this now? How should governments communicate about it to their citizens? I quickly realized that it really is better for the public to be prepared and ready which make them feel empowered, rather than to place all your faith in governments that say they have it “under control” or “on lockdown”, and later on see that trust betrayed. That’s what’s happening now, as the masses in Italy and the US and other nations experience the whiplash of everything changing in a mere week or two. Their countries had not prepared them adequately for the magnitude of the change that was coming, and because of the lack of containment and mitigation, their crises are even larger. As a result, instead of closing for three weeks, schools and universities in the US and Europe are now looking at closing for three months, an entire spring semester truncated.

As Steve noted, Taiwan has fared so well so far because it has continuously looked ahead to what will be needed in the future and made plans for that now. Similarly, we had prepped our pantry and was in good shape despite the toilet paper panic. As we started calming down about the situation in Taiwan, we started wondering, what if COVID-19 did make inroads into the United States? What about our families? On February 25, we sent a few messages to Steve’s parents to see how they were doing, and they responded that there were no reported cases in South Carolina, where they lived, and that “it doesn’t seem to be a big concern here”. During our next Google Hangout chat, we sent on an NPR article on getting prepared for coronavirus, which was filled with very commonsense advice, like stocking up on prescription medication, non-perishable food supplies, and working through emergency plans. What was the worst case scenario? Who were the most vulnerable people? What would Steve’s parents do if his 90-something year old grandmother caught the virus? What if either of his parents got the virus? Who would take care of their two dogs? Talking through each scenario gave us all some clarity and sense of control over the situation. Being prepared, we impressed upon them, was the key difference between panicking when the situation hit the fan and being able to calmly execute the steps that would keep us and our loved ones safe. Later that week, I had my weekly video call with my parents and urged them to do the same thing. Without even realizing it, Steve and I had pivoted from worrying about ourselves and considering evacuating back to the United States to worrying about our families and hunkering down in Taiwan.

Steve had continued his voracious reading of COVID-19 related reports every single morning, and was starting to speak constantly about “the sigmoid”. The sigmoid is mathematical jargon for what is also commonly known as the logistic curve. Everyone and his mother has now heard about “flattening the curve”, but this video by Three Blue One Brown explaining the logistic curve and the exponential growth behind it that drives the spread of diseases like COVID-19 is worth a second look for everyone. (I felt so much smarter after watching it, and you will too!) He was worried that Japan and South Korea were on the sigmoid already, and that Italy and Iran were as well by the waning days of February. It’s worth noting that the United States was not at that point, and despite the number of cases in Taiwan, we weren’t either. Starting in early March, the world had begun to pay even more attention to coronavirus and gratifyingly, to what Taiwan had been doing. News outlets started reporting on the concrete steps that Taiwan had taken to jump on this crisis early. We were resting on our laurels a little bit. I had started hoping that this could be a great demonstration of soft power that would enable Taiwan to get an observer status back in the World Health Organization, or if we could start exporting face masks to other countries, oblige them to remember that in times of need, Taiwan stepped up.

But in the first few days of March, we started seeing the numbers creep up in the United States, and the lack of direction on a national level became downright alarming. Why wasn’t the United States testing in large numbers? Why had they turned down the WHO’s offer of test kits in favor of developing their own, which turned out to be initially faulty? Why weren’t they at least temperature screening anyone who came in, as had been done in Taipei since mid-January? Why could hospitals not test for anyone who had symptoms of COVID-19? It was mind-boggling, as we had just learned that South Korea was pioneering drive-thru testing, and Taiwan was testing thousands. Steve noted that it was not a good sign when the US CDC stopped reporting testing numbers around the beginning of March. “You never want to hide the good numbers,” he pointed out. (Though the CDC has started reporting this information again, it’s not in line with the way the rest of the world does it, which is largely by number of people tested, not samples – most people need two samples to be verified, and may be tested multiple times.) We started seeing the first few Twitter reports of empty shelves, people voluntarily quarantining themselves in San Francisco, and the NYC subway system getting sanitized every 72 hours (for comparison, the Taipei MRT which runs 18 hours a day has been getting sanitized every 4 hours). We started feeling powerless despite all our warnings to family and friends, and worried over the fact that no one seemed to be in charge with a central strategy. One evening over dinner, we just spent time brainstorming things we would do if we were heading up DHHS or the CDC, and almost the next day, I laughed to see that Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes had done the exact same thing in “12 Steps to Tackle the Coronavirus” (March 11, 2020).

Given everything we thought, it was still a shock to me the next week when the situation really started to hit the fan. In retrospect, I thought everyone was on the same page as my parents and Steve’s parents. They had been informed about the seriousness of COVID-19, because we had all been talking on a weekly basis since mid-January. But obviously, not everyone had family in Asia who had been going through it. In fact, friends informed us with disgust that some people had thought this was a Chinese-engineered virus or simply a hoax to keep their attention from the impeachment process. From this side of the ocean, the tendency of fellow Americans to see such incidents as hoaxes or hollow threats is more laughable than ever. We’ve been wrapped in such a blanket of security that allows us to believe we’re immune (sometimes literally) to all the ills that affect other nations, that we never even saw this one coming.

So last week, the panic in the United States just began taking over our social media timelines and news feeds. There were nonstop pictures of empty grocery store shelves, from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to Kroger and Target. There was a run on toilet paper (of course!). People started hoarding hand sanitizer and worse, price-gouging by selling those supplies on Amazon and eBay for many times what they were worth. It was overwhelming and awful, and I started feeling my eyelid start twitching again. As the cascade continued, schools and workplaces started shutting down. Friends who were teachers started brainstorming ways to translate their courses online, and friends who had families were looking at how to entertain and take care of their little ones while dealing with the impending dread and fear of having their parents and older relatives taken from them. It was everything we had experienced last month all over again, and it was the rest of the people I cared about who were going through it now.

At this time, I was outraged like many were in the United States to find that the system was failing its most vulnerable people. To be clear, there are multiple instances of the system failing to protect vulnerable people right now in the US, from people who are facing eviction, high medical bills, and food insecurity, just to name a few problems. But the one that is close to my heart is higher education, and I was absolutely enraged to find that universities were beginning to close and kick out students from their campus without a backward glance. This was happening at some of the most well-resourced, well-heeled, private non-profit institutions that the US had to offer. The US CDC had put out some clear educational guidelines on how to prepare your student body for containment and mitigation of COVID-19, but universities saw much bigger risks. Spring break was coming up for a number of schools, and the worry was intense that students would not obey travel recommendations and inevitably bring back cases of COVID-19 to these crowded campuses. I can’t say in all honesty that it was the wrong decision to make because that is a lot of unknown and a lot of risk, but universities went about it in decidedly the wrong way. Schools like Harvard sent out emails giving students mere days before spring break and stubbornly kept classes in session, setting off waves of panic as students struggled to pack their belongings and move out to perhaps more unsanitary conditions than those in student dorms, increasing the number of people traveling by planes, trains, buses, and automobiles at a time when social distancing was supposed to be adopted widely. There was a huge disparity in information and resources available to students who were dealing with a cascade of problems that came with being forced off campus: where would they stay? Could they get any financial assistance with buying plane tickets or finding storage at the same time as 5,000 of their peers? What about the income they were depending on from their work-study or campus job? Would they receive refunds for room or board or tuition? How could they be expected to figure this all out and then still pay attention in online classes? Sad to say, but I don’t think universities even considered the number of local adults whose lives they’re throwing into economic disarray by taking away their blue-collar jobs as cooks, cleaners, janitors, and generally everyone who keeps a campus up and running. It didn’t look like UChicago did, anyway.

As disappointing as this was, I saw mutual aid groups (UChicago, in Greater Boston, Harvard, Tufts, MIT) beginning to emerge when students and alumni realized that the universities were unable to facilitate this change in a meaningful way for their student bodies. Where they failed to step up, people came forward to offer sublets and rooms and couches as well as food, face masks, supplies, and comfort when institutions threw them out. The silver lining is that people are forging closer connections with each other, which we sorely need in these trying times. But the more damning downside is that colleges and universities were given the chance to shine in this, and they threw it away. While the a few schools were able to provide laptops, airport shuttles, free storage, pay students who were supposed to work on campus, and in general, throw some of their resources at the problem, most schools disappointed their students completely.

What’s the argument in favor of what the universities should have done or how they carried it through? The only real argument I’m willing to accept is that universities have been caught completely flat-footed, duped just like the rest of the US was, into thinking this wasn’t a big deal at first. According to VOANews, “In most cases, U.S. universities and colleges followed similar trajectories, first announcing they would move classes online but that campus facilities would remain open, and then either all at once or through a rapid series of announcements, finally deciding the campuses would close entirely.” The speed with which things escalated indicates to me that behind those rapid announcements were hours of panicked meetings as high-level administration had to quickly come to grips with what America is figuring out – it’s not enough to get hand sanitizer and food and be prepared yourself, it has spread too far, so you must take that next step of cancelling schools, events, and social distancing.

To play devil’s advocate, Steve pointed out pragmatically that higher education is really just a service, and people are paying for courses and a diploma. It just sucks in times like these to be forking out a quarter of a million dollars and to get shafted like this. But I think it sucks on a very different level that is much more damaging. Colleges and universities in the US have long been selling a different product than a diploma: they have sold to us the promise of a community that you will be a part of forever, a brand that you can be loyal to because it lives up to its pure ideals of growing knowledge and enriching lives and helping the world. But this reaction is beyond disappointing, because nickel-and-diming your students and refusing vulnerable populations the right to stay on campus and eat in your halls does not look like this. Speaking as someone who has worked in higher education and philanthropy and has donated to all the schools she has attended, I don’t think higher education is going to recover from this for a long time.

In Part 4, I write about the second wave of COVID-19 cases hitting Taiwan, just when we thought it was starting to get better, and maybe, what lies ahead for the future.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 2

In Part 1, I write about Taiwan’s brush with SARS in 2002-03, the beginnings of the crisis in January, and Taiwan’s initial reactions that put us on a path to getting ahead of the virus.

Part 2:

Before going to bed on February 3, I checked my phone to see an important message sent from school administration to all parents. With a sinking feeling in my heart, I checked, and it was what we had suspected. On February 2, the Taiwanese Ministry of Education had issued a statement saying that the winter break for Taiwanese schools that was due to continue until February 11 would be extended two more weeks until February 25. Many people suspected that international schools like ours would follow suit, and this message confirmed it. We would have three more weeks of extended break, and students would keep up with classes through digital learning. (Also of note, the statement asked employers to provide leave for their employees so that at least one parent could take care of children if need be.)

In my private journal that night, I wrote: What is the new normal? It is face masks all over the place. It is quarantine and cabin fever at home. It is a long winter vacation and staring down at three more weeks of uncertainty. With all the feverish preparations going on around us, I had been looking forward to going back to work, with all its attendant schedules, activities, and some semblance of normalcy. While I was grateful for the chance to spend more time with Steve and Stella, I felt suddenly adrift and cut off from things. As someone who also mainly coordinates and plans events at her job, I was not sure about what the next few months would mean for all of the things we had been scheduling for the spring.

At the same time, Steve and I continued a conversation we had already begun about how to prepare for the worst situation with COVID-19. With a baby on the way and a dog in our family, Steve was on high alert, trying to figure out how to get ahead of this and how to make sure it didn’t impact us. The most dire scenario seemed like we needed to get the heck out of Asia. We could always get on a flight and fly back to the United States, where we would stay with Steve’s parents or my parents, but his more likely because it would mean we could be ensconced in the suburbs away from the busy city centers. How to get out of Taiwan with our dog though seemed like a bigger problem, because animals would probably have stricter quarantine regulations, and pets being abandoned in Wuhan was already presenting as a problem. We talked about that for a while before bringing the conversation down to earth. While the Taiwan CDC and CECC seemed to have things under control and cases were still in the single digits, we wanted to address a much more likely scenario: self-quarantine. The memory of SARS and self-quarantine were still fresh for other teachers at school, and we felt like that was much more of a possibility. While we probably wouldn’t get it if we were careful, we might be cooped up at home without the ability to go outside for a while. We needed to make preparations for that. So we made a long list of things that we thought we would need, like over the counter medications that we didn’t have at home, food and non-perishables that we would find it inconvenient to be without, and some dog medications and supplies that we also wanted. We called it our preparation list, and the next day, we headed to Costco to start beefing up on those items. Even if the worst didn’t happen, we would feel better being more prepared, and we would be able to use up all those supplies eventually. As the Disreputable Dog of Garth Nix’s Lirael would say, “It’s always better to be doing.”

I also wrote in my journal, In my condition, my parents have been calling and asking me to wear face masks. I have acquiesced, and even Steve notes warily that it may have been overly optimistic to go out and eat at hot pot and go to these markets where there’s just a ton of people. Even without the threat of coronavirus, we’re courting flu during this season for sure. This is basically what I mean – even though logically speaking the threat of getting sick is very minimal, and now we’re wearing face masks for anything where we are interacting with other humans (on the MRT, at the store) rather than just ourselves (walking the dog, mostly, or sitting in the park), it still feels psychologically distancing to follow the coronavirus online and at home, watching that red map expand over time, centered on a dark crimson-shaded silhouette of China. Everyone’s being cautious and preventative, but I’m hesitant to call it “overly cautious” now. In all of this, I feel our baby moving inside me. Kicking in the mornings, flutterings during the day, and reassuring me that all is well inside. The kicks are getting stronger, and despite feeling like I’ve got an octopus inside, it makes me smile so much to feel this new life. It is absolutely an amazing thing. I worry about keeping myself healthy, about keeping her healthy, about keeping all of us okay.

So Taipei was holding its breath, but things were due to take a darker turn soon. First, on February 6, Taiwan shut its borders with China, Macao, and Hong Kong. Our friends Henry and Camilla who were living in Hong Kong and had been planning on coming back to Taiwan for the impending birth of their first child had scrambled earlier that week to get an earlier flight back, and when the borders shut, it became clear that their snap decision was one of those decisions that seemed overcautious at first but was excellent in hindsight. It’s worth noting that shutting borders to certain countries, as Europe and the US are beginning to do now, is actually not the stringent ban that it seems to be. For example, you can’t prohibit a citizen of your own country from coming in – that’s what it means to be a citizen. So in this case, Taiwanese citizens like Camilla would have been able to come back. When it comes to Henry, that could have been a bigger question. In fact, a friend who had been traveling in Finland was worried that she wouldn’t be able to return to Taiwan if they transited through Hong Kong. Fortunately, it also became clear that foreigners who already had an Alien Residence Certificate would be allowed back in.

Then on February 7, the other shoe dropped. At dinner, our phones started buzzing simultaneously, evidence that there was a nationwide alert about something. Occasionally, such alerts are sent for typhoons or earthquakes to all cellphones within the area, so we weren’t too surprised, but the contents of this one was a surprise. It turned out that on January 31, the day when I went downtown for yarn and we had hot pot with a bunch of friends, was the day that the fateful Diamond Princess had docked in Keelung, Taipei’s main shipping port and the northernmost city in Taiwan. After the Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama and was found to be carrying COVID-19, Taiwanese officials had been busy tracing the past path of the boat, and found that though the carrier they believed to have infected the boat, a man from Hong Kong, had disembarked already on January 27, the rest of the passengers including some which may have had the virus took a day in Taipei. The text we had received came with a link to Google Maps, where they had recorded the cruise ship passenger itineraries, and depressingly seemed to contain absolutely every single tourist hotspot in the north. With this one move, COVID-19 seemed to be at our front doors. Steve was grimly satisfied that his prediction about the dangers of hot pot seemed to be justified, even if no one had seemed to catch it from this event yet, but this was the spark that fanned the flames of panic in Taipei. January 31 was still the New Year holiday, and most of Taipei’s population had probably been out and about in these locations. A week had already passed, but everyone who had been in those locations anytime between 6:30 am to 5 pm (probably the time that the Diamond Princess was in harbor) was asked to self-monitor their health for the next week until February 14, when the 14-day incubation period for the virus would have passed. My LINE messages from that time record worried back and forth messages with Donna, whose sister had already flown back to the US, and was worried about burning through her sick leave by going home since they had gotten a foot massage that day near one of those locations. I myself had gone to the yarn store just a few blocks away, but thankfully had been wearing at least my cloth mask that whole time.

Three weeks had seemed like a boring eternity to me, and I had idly wondered whether it would be a good idea or not to take a long weekend in Yilan or the south of the island. Now it was coming home to us that the virus was right here in the city, and that it would probably be a good idea to go absolutely nowhere in general. Steve even stopped going as often to his co-working spot just fifteen minutes away because it would mean getting on the public transit more often. Instead, we started taking long walks at night on the riverbanks with Stella. With my expanding belly, I was getting restless at home, but at night in the open air, with a slight breeze, it felt good to stretch my legs and walk for hours. This was the main way we spent time outside in the subsequent few weeks. Occasionally, we made trips to dinner or lunch with a few friends (scrupulously keeping our distance from those who had just gotten back from travel abroad), but more often, we made lunch and dinner at home. Fortunately, the time passed more quickly than I had expected, and with the number of cases continuing to increase linearly (instead of exponentially), the mood was tense but not panicky. When we met with friends or went out, we joked about how great it was to be able to get our house in order, do many loads of laundry, and get as much sleep as we wanted. Even for my friends who had switched to digital learning and online teaching, their first class was usually at 9 am, more than an hour later than usual. So though people complained about spending more of their day in front of a computer, it was not as bad as it could have been. I think the most sympathy had to be given to parents, who were doing their best to entertain and to cope with their young children. While at our school, there were continuing lessons and classes being conducted digitally, many parents I knew were trying to take it one day at a time and not be run ragged by the prospect of being at home for so long with everyone. Fortunately, school still provided a little bit of structure, allowing children to devote themselves to particular subjects throughout the day. I even heard from some friends that this provided a silver lining for their student engagement; some quieter students wrote more on discussion boards than they would raise their hands and say in class. Also, instead of spacing out for a 80-minute class, students were spending 40 minutes doing timed writing exercises, and overall devoting more energy to doing their work than they would perhaps have in class, not that they’d admit to such!

The crazy thing that I took away about COVID-19 was that astonishingly quickly, the new normal took hold, and it became incredibly hard for me to remember what life had been like before this. It was a part of every single conversation I had with friends or parents, Skype calls originally scheduled to update them about the progress of my pregnancy. It just became overwhelmingly the only topic of conversation. When we met up with school friends for drinks one night, the conversation revolved around digital learning, quarantine, and not heck of a lot else. When I looked at Instagram photos from the past few months or watched videos of bloggers walking around Taipei (one of Steve’s favorite things to look at on YouTube), I marveled that not everyone was wearing a face mask, and that people were just mingling around in these crowded spaces without any hint of fear. It seemed like a more innocent time already.

At the same time, we were also learning what consumer panic and supply shortages could look like. On February 8, Taiwan English News reported massive toilet paper sales in Taiwan. Rumors had spread that the increase on demand for raw material used to make face masks would mean that a lower supply of raw material for toilet paper and other paper products. Besides being patently false because toilet paper is made to dissolve in water, and masks need to stand up to some moisture, it was later discovered that the rumor/ social media messages were started by some people who actually worked in the industry and whether erroneously or willfully believed it could be used to their advantage. Taiwan’s been through toilet paper panics before, and fortunately, we were fully stocked even before this thanks to our penchant for being “preppers”, as Steve calls it. However, it made us realize that the true danger did not solely lie in contracting COVID-19. The atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and apprehension made people susceptible to all kinds of groupthink. While we were not in danger of running out of anything in particular, we could easily create our own problems because of ignorance and fear. In response, the Taiwanese government stepped up fines for spreading rumors about COVID-19 to a maximum of NT $3 million (USD $100,000).

Overall, all signs pointed to the Taiwanese government continuing to take this crisis very seriously. The CECC was continuing to work overtime, tracing the contacts of those who had tested positive. Every day, the Taiwan CDC would put out two to three press releases told us how many people were tracked, tested, and put on home quarantine or cleared to go about their daily lives, like this one from February 10. Chen Shih-Chung, the minister of health and welfare who was also the head of the CECC, was basically becoming everyone’s favorite politician. He held daily press conferences and was said to have rushed to attending one after working all night welcoming back a chartered flight of Taiwanese nationals who were returning from Wuhan. His popularity has soared so much during Taiwan’s handling of the entire COVID-19 outbreak that the public is spontaneously paying tribute to him already. Steve was quoting him constantly, and fond of referring to the fact that the current vice-president was an epidemiologist by training.

At the same time, digital tools were being made available to the public to help them handle the crisis. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, announced on February 6 at the same time that masks were starting to be rationed a platform to help track face mask supplies. Many apps and maps were being made to track face mask rationing so that the public could identify and visit the pharmacies which still had masks in stock. We used https://coronavirus.app/taiwan to find the ones closest to our house.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note how worried I was during this phase about anti-Asian sentiment. Several times in February, I shared Facebook articles with friends about the wave of xenophobia that Asians were facing around the world. Children were being bullied in school, people were being beat up in public in Europe, Chinatown restaurants were feeling the lack of business all over the United States, and microaggressions of a million different sorts were being reported all over the world. Imagine how hurtful it was for people to move away from you at the sight of you, for those people to start berating you for wearing a face mask, for people to get up if you sat down next to them. This happened in Europe before there was a single case declared. Here, it is impossible for people in Taiwan to shy away from others on the basis of looking like they were from mainland China. Until you open your mouth (and maybe sometimes afterwards), there’s just no way to know. Everyone’s behind a face mask anyway. But it pained me to see how racism and xenophobia were running rampant elsewhere in the world, given new free rein by the appearance of COVID-19.

Overall, I was feeling pretty ragged. On February 26, I wrote in my private journal, Feeling the baby move is a genuinely great feeling, and would make these days a transport of delight if it were not for the stress of the coronavirus outbreak and the pressure of making decisions, buying things, figuring out where to live. For the past few weeks, my lower left eyelid has been twitching constantly, a reminder that low-level background stress is permeating throughout my life. Maybe an exciting part of becoming a parent… maybe this epidemic which has killed a lot of people already is waiting in the background to pounce. Next week, we will return to school, but I’ve already been called in for a “fever screening training” to make sure we can take the temperatures for everyone coming into school. Steve’s good friends Andrew and Erin, who were planning to come in about a month for spring break, are probably not coming, because everyone in the US is afraid of coronavirus. They’re slightly more concerned about ending up in quarantine afterwards, but it’s really hard to convey how with spring coming, green leaves and sunlight on the trees, with rising temperatures and more folks out of doors not wearing as many face masks, the fear of contagion is more a fear than anything else. It’s really hard to convey that. We don’t know yet what will happen, but the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty when planning further out… it is a very difficult thing to deal with.

In Part 3, I write about going back to school, watching the COVID-19 situation explode in Europe and the US, and why US higher education has made an epic mistake.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 1

For the past two months, our lives have been turned kind of upside down just like the lives of everyone else living in Asia. The novel coronavirus, also now known as COVID-19, exploded onto the scene at the same time as Lunar New Year. In this time, it has gone from a mild concern to a full-fledged wildfire, rampaging through our lives, to a less urgent but still vital issue, as we watch the same waves that passed through East Asia begin to reverberate through the US. We’ve realized now that this is shaping up to be one of the biggest incidents in our lifetime, and seeing what is happening to our friends and family in the US makes us want to help and speak up somehow. I think one of the only places to start is by chronicling how we’ve seen it so far.

Part 1:

Though it seems like a bit of an exaggeration, our story really starts more than 15 years ago. While I was still in high school, the SARS outbreak in East Asia of 2002-2003 left an enduring mark on Taiwan. Thousands in Asia were sickened, and Taiwan had more than 70 deaths. Friends who were in Taiwan at that time had school canceled early, and went without their graduation ceremony in May. Old-timers at our school talked about the quarantine procedure that happened because some parents had gotten it, and one of them died. They shut down the school, and made sure that everyone stayed at home for two weeks, checking on them daily with visits in hazmat suits, handing them lunchboxes to make sure they didn’t have any reasons to go outside. Overall, more than 150,000 people were placed on a strict quarantine by the government. After SARS, the Taiwanese developed a habit of wearing face masks quite often if anyone exhibits symptoms of a respiratory illness. More importantly, the government made several changes, including instituting the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which is an agency that would be activated in times of crisis, and headed up by the Minister of Public Health. It would have emergency powers and be the central decision maker about closing schools, businesses, and instituting emergency measures.

Fast forward to 2020. In mid-January, we started hearing about a mysterious disease in Wuhan, China. It barely registered with me when I heard that my dad was leaving Shanghai a few days early for New Year’s break, but it ended up being a huge boon that he got out of China on January 17. On January 21, Taiwan CDC reported their first case of the coronavirus, a Taiwanese businesswoman who had just traveled back from Wuhan, and on January 22, the CECC was activated and already hard at work making sure that face masks would be available, even though the week-long New Year’s vacation had just started. By the time New Year’s break started here on January 25, the result was that Taiwan was already on high alert. I reassured my parents that we would be fine, but on January 26, when we went to Shilin Night Market for a walk, Steve and I were both taken back that we were the only ones in sight on the MRT or in the night market not wearing a face mask. In any given day in Taiwan, a handful of people on the train or bus are always wearing a face mask. It’s a polite thing to do if you have a cold or are suffering from allergy symptoms, because people will look at you askance if you sneeze, cough, or show a runny nose. The idea is: why aren’t you protecting other people by putting some cautionary measures in place if you want to be sick or look sick and still be in public transport? That week, we started playing a game, which was to see how many people we could count who were not wearing face masks on public transit. It usually ended up being 5 to 7 people, two of which were ourselves.

While I’m generally a little more burned out on the news cycle and staying away from the phones, Steve started voraciously reading everything he could about the newest cases, and decided it was time for us to start getting some preventative measures. First, we started walking around trying to figure out where we could buy face masks, hand sanitizer, or rubbing alcohol. Though this was only late January, we were already pretty late on the ball. Most places were sold out or only getting very occasional shipments. One afternoon, we saw a line outside Cosmed, a CVS-type of store, and I jumped in line without being able to figure out what was exactly being sold. Fortunately, it was face masks, and I got a pack of 5 purple masks, because we were only able to buy one pack per person. However, alcoholic wipes, hand sanitizer, and rubbing alcohol were nowhere to be found, even though we walked everywhere. On January 27, we received emails from school saying the New Year break would be extended for three days, and we would go back to school on February 6, not February 3. Many families had probably taken the break time to travel to China, Hong Kong, and other places where the coronavirus seemed to be more prevalent, and this would give us a little bit of breathing room to make sure that if people showed symptoms, they would not come to school.

By the time it was Steve’s birthday on January 30, we had gotten a hold of some masks, both cloth ones that are usually worn for people who are on scooters, and paper ones. The next day on January 31, we were scheduled to go to hot pot downtown with our friends Matt, Donna, Donna’s sister who was visiting from the US, and Jeff. That morning, I made a trip downtown while wearing my cloth mask to buy some yarn from one of the only stores that sells it. While heading downtown for the hot pot, Steve mentally wondered if this was the wrong move. Even in good times, he’s convinced that hot pot is just a terrible disease vector, as are most all you can eat buffets where many people are coming by and using the same handles to get condiments and drinks and desserts. So though it was a delicious dinner, Steve had his misgivings, which were entirely proven to be true a few days later.

On January 30, the CECC was starting to institute a 3-mask per person limit to be dispensed through convenience stores and other small marts. We only succeeded in buying some face masks after staking out the local 7-11 and being told that the delivery truck comes around midnight. So at midnight, we walked downstairs and around the corner to get our three per person, which were packaged in these little plastic baggies. That still constitutes half of the face mask supply we have at home!

On February 4, the CECC introduced another measure limiting face masks. Instead of being dispensed through convenience stores, only government-sanctioned pharmacies would have masks, and you could buy two at a time, once per week. They would track people via their National Health Insurance cards; for foreigners who didn’t have NHI, they would be tracked through their passport number. Moreover, each store would only be given 200 face masks per day. At the same time, Taiwan was ramping up mask production. By the end of the New Year’s holiday, there were millions of masks being produced every single day, and the majority of them was going to hospitals and other locales where they were hoping to build up at least a two-week supply if a large wave of patients hit.

The measure seemed to us like a severe overreaction at the time, but in a theme that would repeat time and time again in the next two months, measures that seemed like an overreaction turned out to be made exactly in time and to the correct extent. We were learning that in order to keep it in control, you had to get ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Our Italian trip is over and done with, and we are back basking in the humidity of mid-August Taipei, but I want to make sure to document the rest of our trip. Thanks to all my copious photos and Instagramming not to mention the wealth of Wikipedia, I have some great reference points. The most anticipated part of our Italian trip was the visit to the ancient sites of Rome, because I took Latin for six years and studied mythology and Roman history for most of that time. Many sites in Rome hail from the most fascinating times in its history – the late Republic and the early Empire (about 100 BC to 150 AD). In exploring those sites, we trekked through the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums, and the Baths of Caracalla.

The most rewarding but easily most tiring day was visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum on a joint ticket of 12 euros. We lined up to buy tickets at the Forum as soon as things opened at 8:30 am, and scored a 9 am entrance to the Colosseum, bypassing what easily looked like a hundred and fifty people in line. Eek. The Colosseum was better known in ancient times as the Flavian Ampitheater, begun by Vespasian, who began his reign in 69 AD. His oldest son Titus continued the building, and it was finished by his younger son Domitian. Originally, wooden passageways under the floor of the Colosseum were used to channel the gladiators and beasts who fought in the stadium. Sometimes, they would be removed entirely, and the entire floor flooded with water to provide a stage for mock naval battles. (That ended after Domitian constructed stone passageways to replace the wooden ones.) It is still incredibly imposing, despite a few earthquakes over the centuries that have destabilized one side.

There was much more signage around than when Steve came last time, including some interesting permanent exhibits about the archeology done around the area. For example, we saw a lot of discarded foodstuff, and could extrapolate the ancient equivalent of popcorn and beer that the Romans would enjoy at the races. As we walked around, there was no shortage of folks who had not taken Latin for six years and decided to employed tour guides in various languages. Many of them spoke English, but it was fun listening to one family get a tour guide in very Italian-accented French. It was at least possible to hide from the sun amid the huge arches, so even though it got hot quickly, we did enjoy our time walking around the Colosseum. We capped off our visit by sitting in the shade outside admiring the Arch of Constantine and munching on some tasteless sandwiches. (There are very few food places surrounding these sights in the middle of Rome, so we had purchased sandwiches beforehand, but they were no prize either.)

Continue reading Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Rome: Pope Days Edition

Rome was hot and sunny. We have baked under the sun, trod through her streets, and walked underground beneath her buildings. We have watched many of her sunsets, but only one of her sunrises (it is usually too early for that). This was certainly the most anticipated city, but even a whole eight nights, the longest we’re staying in any one city, wasn’t enough to see everything we wanted to see. To sum up our Rome trip, we alternated Pope Days, which require a bit more modest clothing with long pants and t-shirts or shoulder-covering shirts, with Ancient Days, which generally require more sunscreen and hats since we’re out there walking from “hot ruin to hot ruin”. Steve was also slightly more enthusiastic about Pope Days, his bailiwick being more the history of early Christianity, and I of course wanted to come to Rome mainly to see the classics sites from 2,500 or so years ago, but we have a good overlap of interest in those respective topics.

I’ll get right to our favorite, the Vatican Scavi tour, which is actually a nice combination of our two interests. I think few people know that under the world-famous St. Peter’s Basilica (level one) is a church originally dedicated by Constantine in the 300s AD, and that church itself (level two) was raised above St. Peter’s tomb, which is among a hillside of Roman mausoleums (level three). This was certainly all news to me, but we learned about it during a 90-minute tour that was probably the best bang for buck we’ve spent on the trip.

The visit itself was a re-do for Steve from the last time he was in Rome, which was roughly 15 years ago. The process has not really changed, either. We wrote an email with our availability, and were sent a few dates in response. Then we had to follow another link and pay so that we would be able to go. Days were selling out even months ago! So we were really glad this was all planned in April and May. We had a little trouble figuring out where to go, but after some confusion, we followed the correct police checkpoint on the left side of St. Peter’s Basilica and presented our credentials to the Swiss Guard. The Swiss Guard, by the way, had some fabulous summer costumes on – floofy velvet hats, yellow, red, and blue ribboned pants and shirts, not to mention a very sharp pike in hand. We almost wanted a picture with one!

Inside the Scavi, we and thirteen other guests were greeted by an effusive lady named Daniela who gave us very long explanations of everything as well as some very dry jokes. After some introductions about the history of the building, we directly descended from the level just under St. Peter’s Basilica to the underground scavi. Here, it was damp, cool, and musty. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves walking through what was obviously some narrow paths beside small cottages that were Roman mausoleums. Entire families were buried there, and clear marble inscriptions said that they were for particular families, children, their freedmen and freedwomen as well. We had to duck to pass the doorways in some to look at the mosaics or the wall niches inside which held room for urns of ashes and bone. Outside, we could clearly see some beautiful fresco decorations on the wall, and one that looked like a delicate bird held my attention for a full five minutes. What’s amazing to me is that nobody knew anything about these mausoleums until after World War II. They were only initially excavated in the 1940s to locate the exact remains of St. Peter, and it took a long time to figure out which bones were his, exactly. It turns out that there was a wall built on top of the marble box that was his grave, initially constructed as a part of the wall for the church dedicated by Constantine in the 300s AD. The box itself was empty, but the wall had a cavity which contained a human skeleton, which the church now believes to be the remains of St. Peter.

When the tour ended, we were inside St. Peter’s Basilica proper, which we then walked into. First, we saw the Vatican Grottoes, which is on the second level. We saw plenty of sarcophagi of former popes, which varied from the very Baroque and flowery bronze and gold cover to very worn marble effigies which looked simple and austere. Then we emerged to the upper level,  into the church itself. St. Peter’s is vast. We have seen plenty of churches, and most of them could fit inside St. Peter’s Basilica. There were many statues, especially of marble carved to resemble fabric, like an angel or a saint with flowing robes carved of red marble. Around the frieze just under the ceiling, the immortal words of Jesus to St. Peter were carved: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam,” meaning “You are Peter, and on this stone (which is what Peter means) I will build my church.” There were also areas roped off for worshippers rather than idle tourists like ourselves. I even saw several confessional booths which were labeled with the different languages to which they catered – you could make your confession to a priest at St. Peter’s in English, Italian, French, and more. It’s neat things like that that make you appreciate being in a place of such international importance.

The other main draw was the Vatican Museums, which was the first thing we saw in Rome on our first full day here. It was a five-hour haul through these museums, the most impressive and large but also exhausting museum that we saw on our entire trip. Steve happened upon the right tickets online, so we jumped on it, and hustled off to the Vatican, evading touts and ticket scalpers all along the perimeter of Vatican City itself. Inside, the museums were an amazing array of everything that every pope has ever commissioned, acquired, or received as a present from various dignitaries and artists throughout the centuries. There were ancient statues like the original of Laocoön and His Sons, which you can tell is the original, because the hands of the children are lost. There are entire rooms of red and black Etruscan pottery from the 400s and 500s BC, amazing in their exquisite detail, of mythological figures or just merrymakers. It would probably take a lifetime to even just walk through every single room and look at each thing that was made more than two thousand years before you were born. One of my favorites was the Gallery of Maps, which was a very long room with exquisite maps painted on the walls of various parts in Italy, in gold and blue. The Vatican Museums was arranged in one long guided route which went one direction and ended up in the Sistine Chapel, and for most of the time, we were swept along by a tide of international tourists. Families from every country on earth it seemed like fanned themselves and chattered to each other or silently followed a tour guide with an upheld flag, listening to the guide through their Bluetooth headphones in different languages. We stepped out of that river of humanity several times to closely examine maps of Sicily or of ancient ports like Brundisium and Ostia.

One of the largest crowds was in the rooms of frescos by Raphael, including the famous School of Athens. It depicts many philosophers known to the Renaissance all arrayed in a marble courtyard, at its center Plato with one finger pointed at the sky and Aristotle with his hand facing down, five fingers splayed. I know the painting well, since I completed a 1,000 piece puzzle of the painting several years ago (not the conventional way of getting to know a piece of art, I know). In person, it’s very satisfying, being the entire width and height of a wall. It also depicts many other philosophers including Diogenes, Epicurus, Pythagoras, and more. I enjoyed that almost more than the final room that most people come to the Vatican to see: the Sistine Chapel. With its immense ceiling by Michaelangelo and surrounding frescos, the Sistine Chapel is more often known as an art gallery, but the truth is that it’s first and foremost a chapel for the Pope. In the Vatican, this is also the place that the cardinals gather to select the pope. However, most days, it is filled with hundreds of tourists (being a rather large room), who are all ushered to the center of the room so as not to impede traffic around the edges of the room. Everyone is gazing at the ceiling, trying to make sense of paintings besides the obvious one that everyone knows (Adam limply brushing the finger of God as an old man). And there’s an amazing amount to see. Possibly more because you’re not actually allowed to take photos in the Chapel. Every five minutes, there’s some guard yelling “No photo!” at some poor lady, which kind of makes it difficult to enjoy the sacred space, but anyway, some people get selfies in anyway. Either way, I appreciate the chance to just look at things. All around the chapel are larger frescos, and the frescos that run lengthwise depict the corresponding events in the lives of Jesus and Moses. There are also paintings of Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel next to paintings of the Delphic Sybil and other Sybils who are also regarded as having predicted the coming of Jesus. All in all, it’s quite a dizzying room, and you can only hold your neck at an angle for so long. At the end of an entire afternoon filled with dazzling art and beautiful examples, it’s in fact difficult not to fall asleep on your feet.

Of course, we enjoyed our time seeing these glittering examples of antiquity and the Renaissance, but it’s a word of warning to the wise: ration your time in museums, and give yourself plenty of time to recover just by sitting around and enjoying the gorgeous light and people-watching in this city. When it comes to museums, there is more than enough to keep you occupied for a whole day, but you only have so much attention and time, so keep your eye on the time.

More to come: Ancient Days in Rome and all the amazing food we ate!

Florence: Not-So-Famous Sights Edition

When we began to plan our trip, Steve spent about four hours browsing the Internet (especially sites like Atlas Obscura) and unearthing a wealth of strange museums and odd gift shops in Florence. We didn’t even get to all of them, leaving behind things like the museum full of medieval armor and fully-dressed warhorse figurines (the legacy of another Medici heir who had more money than he knew what to do with), but we saw a tantalizing few which showcases the history and culture of Florence in a different way. I’m glad to report we enjoyed pretty much all of them!

First off the bat was the Museo Galileo, our first stop in Florence. It sits on a building adjoining the Galleria delgi Uffizi. Once you get past the crowds in line to see that august museum, you find only a few people lingering in the entrance hall of the Museo Galileo, which costs 10 euro to see. This used to be named the Museum of History of Science, but deciding to abandon such a prosaic name, the museum chose to double-down on its collection of actual instruments by Galileo. Like most museums in Florence, it is another Medici legacy, with hundreds of instruments and scientific tools over hundreds of years. Through those tools like astrolabes, quadrants, and distillers, you can clearly trace the development of the disciplines of astronomy, navigation, military arts, chemistry, and more. We saw clever sundials made of thread instead of a wedge, allowing it to be closed like a pocket mirror. The biggest piece in there was a model of the solar system (constructed according to the Aristotelian model of the universe, with Earth at its center). It was gilded all over, with little clever touches such as the face of God painted under the very top of the dome. The entire thing was at least two meters tall. The actual collection of instruments of Galileo included three of his actual telescopes, which did look very old and leathery. Through them, he made discoveries like the fact that Jupiter was surrounded by its own moons (which he called “Asterae Mediciae” or Medici Stars after his patrons), a contrary claim that shook the very foundations of the Aristotelian model. After all, everything was supposed to revolve around the earth. We also saw an interesting scientific paradox machine, which showed that a cylinder does not roll down a slope if there is no friction (I really learned something there), and curiosity machines that demonstrate the effects of static electricity. These were the ways that the European middle class began to explore an interest in the popular science of the day, like electricity and physics. The Museo Galileo probably had the most well-developed English captions and guides of the lesser-known museums we were visiting, but it lacked explanation when it came to the operation and use of these instruments. For example, the thing that I understood best in that museum was a golden protractor, like the kind used in math class. When it came to how these instruments were used to determine the time of day, year, and even location on earth (especially longitude), it would have been useful to have diagrams or examples with simple calculations. In that, it was less of a science museum and more of an art museum, because the scientific instruments of the time were mostly for institutions and upper-class households, who used them to showcase their own learning and leisure through precious metals and decoration.

The Museo Galilieo is partnered with La Specola, and we got reduced admission to the latter museum a few days later, because both are among the natural history museums of Florence. While Museo Galileo focuses more on the history of science that pertains to physics, La Specola is about specimens and models that focus on biology. The crown jewel of their collection is a set of anatomical waxworks, probably hundreds (maybe even a thousand), which were produced between the 1700s and 1900s. They are incredibly life-like, and were created by wax-modelers in conjunction with doctors and medical personnel of the nearby universities. These were used for medical students to understand the inner workings of the human body, because otherwise, the only other way was to see a live dissection of a cadaver. They range from rather simple waxworks like that of a shoulder or arm with a few muscles attached to entire bodies where the circulatory or lymphatic systems are displayed in all their glory. We paid an extra 3 euro each to take the guided tour, which is the only way that one can see these waxworks. They are after all, so fragile and in need of preservation that you’re not allowed to even touch the glass and wood cases that these are enclosed in. Our guide spoke English with an extraordinarily thick Italian accent, but fortunately, she spoke slowly for our purposes. She showed us that the wax modelers began by creating a clay model of a heart or bone, and used that to create a plaster mold, which they filled with the wax of the color and consistency they needed. Then we moved on to the actual rooms, five or six in all, which were arranged by the systems they showed (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, nervous, etc.). Each waxwork also had a correspondingly detailed picture which hung on the walls above them, which the wax-modelers also used to help them create the work. The strangest and most interesting them about them is that they look very vibrant and alive, like real people whose muscles and organs are on display. Body Worlds before there were Body Worlds, basically. And they are arranged in various poses, very much like the marble statues that we saw in the art museums. Several have a hand loosely held in front of them, as though they were about to start speaking. All of them have real human hair. One model of a woman has luxurious curls and even a string of pearls around her neck. One model showcasing human muscles is depicted stretched out on his belly and his head turned to the side, one arm flung-out as though sleeping. These wax-modelers were truly artists of their time, who saw no contradiction or even separation between the sciences and the arts. They created beautiful, lively, unsettling works that are scientifically accurate but not sterile. I loved the chance to see this different approach that was much more prevalent before the technological revolution.

Finally, the religious: we were recommended by a friend to visit the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, high on the south side of the Arno. We went for the views, but also for the services. San Miniato is an active Olivetian Benedictine abbey, and holds masses on weekdays and Sundays in both Italian and Latin with Gregorian chant. Behind the abbey is also the Cimitero della Porte Sante, which is a quiet and lovely place to be laid to rest. To our surprise, the service was conducted with only three brothers – two white-robed brothers and one abbot who wore a gold vest over his white robes. All three sang beautifully, chanting and singing the Latin mass. Predictably, I was a few beats behind everyone else as to when to stand, when to sit down, when to join in and say, “Et cum tuum spiritum” (“and with your spirit,” in English!). There was actually about twenty to thirty people there, some tourists like us who had come to see the service, but some who lived nearby, certainly. After the early evening mass, we also saw the beginning of Vespers, which featured even more brothers. When we left, we purchased a candle and also some delicious gelato made by the abbey. The view was even more spectacular when we left near sunset. From this perspective on the hill, nearly as high as the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, we were able to see the entire city of Florence, spread out. Through the center of the city flows the Arno, crossed in several parts, by bridges new and at least one old (the Ponte Vecchio). Most were destroyed in World War II, but the Ponte Vecchio was preserved. It is so old that it has many stores and buildings constructed on the bridge. To our right was the Duomo, and to our left were smaller churches. Everything was in a golden haze at sunset.

For our last day in Florence, we did some gift shopping. First, we made a beeline for Il Papiro, a handmade paper store. Italy is full of these types of boutiques, selling hand-bound leather books and journals, stationery, sealing wax, stamps, and the list goes on. We were welcomed by an older paper-maker in the back who demonstrated to us the art of making marbled paper. It was a beautiful demonstration: he started by lightly scattering drops of acrylic and oil paints on a gel surface, then swirled and dipped various tools to shape the paints into different patterns, and finally slowly settling a piece of paper on the entire surface. What was astonishing was how the paint was instantly sucked onto the paper, with almost none left behind on the gel. The laborious part was apparently the preparation of the paints, with the right colors, and different proportions of solvents like turpentine and distilled water. We went away with several purchases of the marbled paper products and with a strong appreciation of the art and patience it takes to make this unique product.

For our second stop, we walked nearly to the main train station in Florence. The Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has a very long history. Since the 1200s, the Dominican monks who established Santa Maria Novella grew herbs and plants for medicinal purposes. They even produced rose water which was supposed to purify, and was in hot demand to ward off the Black Death. Catherine de Medici commissioned them to make her a perfume before she left Florence for Rome, and you can still buy the original formula, which is now called Acqua de Santa Maria Novella. Just walking into the pharmacy is an experience – inside, the air is thickly perfumed with every single scent you can think of. You can buy soaps of excellent quality, perfumes made from scratch, scented soaps or papers, lotions, and much more. The entire pharmacy is also housed in a space that looks very much like all the other museums in Florence – originally, it was most likely a palazzo that is still sumptuously decorated with gold molding near the ceilings.

Overall, Florence was just a perfectly lovely time. We had such great places to visit, and stayed in our favorite Airbnb which was well-located and full of amenities. I wish we hadn’t had to spend almost 100 euros on tickets to these sorts of locations, but one does pay to support the preservation of art and history. Onto Rome!

Florence: Famous Sights Edition

There are some things you feel obliged to see in Florence, as in any world famous city. And being that it’s Florence, which has an absurdly high density of museums per square meter, there are a lot of things you feel you are obliged to see. We made time in our schedule for just a handful, and some of them were very highly rated, while some were slightly more lower rated on the list. Let’s start with the stars:

Galleria delgi Uffizi is one of the most famous museums in the world, and it took us nearly five full hours to complete from beginning to end. In the last few rooms, we were just asleep on our feet! The museum mostly has artwork and icons (anytime between the 1200s to the 1800s) and sculptures, mostly copies from the Renaissance period, of original Greek and Roman sculptures. It won major points for having very lovely paintings like the ones that have made Botticelli famous: Birth of Venus and Spring. Those live up to the reputation, being very large and fairly vibrant in person. There was also an astonishing amount of Caravaggio paintings. We saw the Bacchus which Steve enjoyed as well as the Medusa shield that is so often depicted in textbooks.

There were countless religious paintings, giving Steve ample time to let me know about each variety of religious painting. One of the most popular scenes is the Annunciation, where the archangel Michael appears to the Virgin to announce that she is to bear the Son of God, and there’s usually a depiction of the Holy Spirit flying to her in the shape of a white dove (sometimes carried on gold beams); there was actually one novel one where a pair of hands (the hands of God the Father) descends from Heaven to release the dove. Another popular scene is the Deposition, where Jesus is taken down from the cross after his crucifixion. He is usually surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Saint Mary Magdalene, the latter of whom can be recognized by her very long hair as well as a reliquary which she is holding where they collected the blood of Christ as he was wounded on the cross. There was just also an endless number of Madonnas with an Infant Jesus, done in the tonde style which is a round canvas and frame. Those were very common because many middle-class folks would want those for their houses or places of business, so we have a lot that have been passed down, many of them by famous artists.

One of the things that woke me up near the end was seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. I saw it when we rounded the corner to one of the last rooms, and far from being horrified by all the arterial blood spurting out of Holofernes’s head, I exclaimed, “Fantastic!” which caused Steve to burst into laughter. But really, it’s an exceptional painting that is very large, very vivid, and fierce. Judith’s face resembles that of Gentileschi herself, and Holofernes’s face resembles that of Agostino Tazzi, a former mentor who was convicted of raping her. While many have depicted the scene, most artists draw the Biblical heroine with the head in a basket and a clean sword, but this one is drawn in a very naturalist style and captures her mid-action.

We saw the Galleria dell’Accademia on our second day in Florence. It’s a much smaller gallery than the Uffizi, and only took us about two and a half hours to make it through. It’s remarkable for several huge statues. The first is the one and only Michelangelo’s David. It has its own space at the junction of a T-shaped exhibition hall, lit by a circular skylight above. It is a remarkable statue that is larger than you would think. As Steve quipped, “If that’s how tall David is, you gotta wonder about Goliath.” The statue is well over 5 meters tall, and the nonchalant pose with the curly, tousled hair that David affects is very much at odds with his gaze. If you position yourself to look directly into his eyes, you see a direct, even fierce resolve. All the muscles, the veins in his arms and fingers, are so well-articulated and delicate that it is possible to imagine he’s going to breathe or move. When you’ve seen images of the David as much as most people have, you think that all sculpture is going to be like that, but it’s an utterly original, detailed, and striking sculpture of immense size. Michelangelo well-deserves his reputation.

The hall leading up to the David is a wonderful contrast. It houses five other statues by Michelangelo, collectively called the Prisoners. They were meant for a papal tomb, but were not finished before Michelangelo passed away. So not only do they depict bearded and shackled prisoners, but they are roughly-rendered marble statues only partially liberated from the block of stone from which they are carved. Also remarkable was the Rape of the Sabines, which is by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor (yeah, there’s a lot of classical art out there that uses the theme of sexual assault). It’s a group sculpture of three people carved from a single piece of marble. An older man cowers below a younger one who grasps a young woman in his arms, she herself reaching out for help. It’s a very striking scene that rewards close observation from all angles, so you can look at the detail slowly while walking around the statue, and the various limbs and the position of the bodies invite your gaze to trace an upward spiral.

There were a lot of religious icons, and walking from room to room, you can see the change that came to differentiate medieval art from the Renaissance. Whereas medieval religious art tended to depict some divine scenes, more were of simply an array of saints who were easily identifiable (St. Peter with his keys, St. John the Baptist with his robe of hair, St. Catherine with her wheel), mostly for use in churches or on altars. When it did depict the Christ, they usually used size to show importance, making the face and figure of Christ larger than those of his apostles, who were in turn larger than mortals or lesser saints. Later on, with the advent of the Renaissance, we started seeing use of perspective, for example, at the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven where saints and angels are recognizable but arranged in semi-circles as though in an amphitheater, with all the same sized faces. Others still gave them more naturalistic faces with recognizable wrinkles, flowing hair, and other features.

One of the last things I wanted to mention was that the Accademia had a music space, which featured several gorgeous violins and violas by Stradivarius. We even saw some now-extinct musical instruments which were very popular in its time, like the hurdy-gurdy (a pianoforte variation) and the serpent (something that looks like a very curvy bassoon). They even had several examples that gave us a good idea of how we progressed from having plucked string instruments to the invention of the piano, where hammers were used to strike the strings and then diminished. Though our visit to the Accademia was shorter, I liked being able to see everything and leave by 12 pm so that we had the afternoon to ourselves!

Also well-known are the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, but as there’s literally historical, centuries-old art everywhere you look in Florence, and you don’t have time to see this, it’s totally fine. Both are complexes of the Medici family, which ruled Tuscany and thus Florence as Dukes for centuries. The Pitti Palace is very interesting because it features apartments of those dukes and duchesses and their family, and feels very much like walking through Versailles or something similar. There are so many incredible paintings on all the walls, many paintings in a single room grouped together on a mythological theme (i.e. “Room of Ulysses”, “Room of Hercules”), that it doesn’t look like art to be admired on its own, but just art grouped together to impress by its sheer scale. What surfaces are not covered in gold leaf are instead upholstered in deep red velvet or satin. While impressive to see and certainly awe-striking, we were pretty bored quickly because there isn’t the same amount of detail paid to the individual paintings, and also, there’s not enough time to look at everything. We also saw the Boboli Gardens beforehand. As for the gardens, though there are many lovely statues that had been arranged there for the pleasure of the Medici family, it was a very hot summer afternoon in Florence. Our favorite part of the afternoon was probably sitting on a shady hill and enjoying a nap.

Lastly, it was slightly disappointing to see Santa Maria del Fiore, which is the Florence Duomo or Cathedral. It is gorgeous on the outside, all creamy white marble, decorated with pale green marble and pink marble and other colors. It has an immense front façade with statues of pretty much all the main people in Florentine history. However, the line that we had to stand in sapped our patience and overhyped the interior. While you can buy 18 euro tickets that allow you entrance to the cathedral, the famous Dome of Brunelleschi, the crypt, the bell tower, and the baptistery, we were a bit cathedraled-out by Siena. (Not to mention that we’ll have to go see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican next week!) So we simply stood in line for about an hour to get in for free. Being that we were able to hang out with Steve’s cousin Morgan and her husband Cameron while doing so, it wasn’t as trying as it could have been. When we finally went inside, it was a little bit off-putting to find that it was practically empty. That was thanks to the influence of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar from the late 1400s who went around Florence preaching against the decadence of the church. He succeeded in swaying many influential painters and artists of the time to paint more austerely, to depict scenes of sorrow, repentance, and remorse. He also succeeded in getting people to basically empty out their churches of “overly decadent” artwork, resulting in the largely bare church we saw in Florence. However, he did not succeed in erasing the frescoes and paintings around the cathedral, which included one painting of Dante and depicts his Divine Comedy, which is a painting I’ve definitely seen in textbooks before. The cathedral does also have a lovely dome, which is made of brick masonry, and is considered the largest masonry dome in the world. Steve and I briefly debated this, and we think that though there’s now the technology to build larger domes of masonry or of different material, the sheer world of possibilities for architecture has moved us away from things like domes which are pretty predictable even though they seemed ground-breaking for their time.

There are most definitely other worthy and commonly-known sights in Florence, but we’re happy to have seen this. Next time, I’ll introduce the lesser-known but even more entertaining sights that we were able to find!

Slowing down in Florence

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you may have realized that we’ve been traveling non-stop for the last three weeks, blowing through six cities in Switzerland and Italy. By the time we got to Florence on Tuesday, we were both exhausted. Traveling but taking our time is an art we’ve apparently forgotten all about, five years after our big circumnavacation. So we set about recovering our breath and remembering how to make time for ourselves in Florence.

We have seven nights in this Tuscan city, home of pretty much every single Renaissance painting you’ve ever heard about that isn’t in the Louvre of Paris. Michaelangelo painted here, Botticelli did too, and it’s the adopted home of Leonardo da Vinci. The Medicis ruled here for hundreds of years, gathering the cream of European art and culture and displaying it here in their palaces. When we first sat down with a list of places we wanted to see, it felt like one big headache. I just saw us racing from one museum to another. Needless to say, that’s not anyone’s idea of a fun time. After much deliberation, we balanced the most talked-about places that we agreed we had to see with other smaller quirkier, less-famous museums and sights that we had a personal interest in, and ended up with basically one activity per day. It’s proven to give us enough flexibility, and resulted in enough sleep and down-time.

We found an excellent Airbnb which overlooks a little square in Florence city center, a mere 10-minute walk from the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Florence Duomo) and many other highlights. It has a lofted bedroom and a well-equipped kitchen, as well as one of the firmest couches that I’ve encountered on this trip. Several nights in a row, we’ve been enjoying dinner Italian style with the aperitivo. At many restaurants around Florence, you can hop on in sometime between 6 pm and 8 pm, and they’ll have what they call the aperitivo: for 10 euro, you get a cocktail or drink and enjoy the all-you-can-eat antipasti buffet. You can heap your plate high with any kind of pasta (usually some pesto and tomato variants) offered, olives, bread, veggie dishes like eggplant parmesan, olive or tomato tapenade, slices of fried polenta, stir-fried marinated mushrooms, and much more. We tried it out at a nearby restaurant yesterday, which was fun; I got a Hugo, which is a cocktail with elderflower liqueur, fresh mint, and prosecco. However, even tastier has been having it at home. Our first evening, we bought a local cheese that is gorgonzola layered with marscapone (creamy and stinky, my favorite!), panzanella (a breadcrumb salad), marinated artichokes, olives, and salami, topped off with a freshly cooked baguette. Two days ago, we tried some tortellini instead with white beans and other variants. Tonight, it was freshly fried sausages with an orichette and caprese salad. We have bought our own bottles of Campari and Aperol here, and enjoy making our own cocktails to boot. Honestly, the best hidden tip to travel Europe on a budget is to buy a combination of pre-made supermarket food and groceries and simply cook for yourself. Eating out is a hazard that is more often than not something that doesn’t pay off – we’ve purchased enough dry, tasteless, and prohibitively expensive paninis and pizzas on this trip already, and we’re not even in Rome!

Another observation from our travel fatigue is that we’re not alone. Being tired and traveling abroad is a real challenge, as many fellow travelers can attest to. Florence, Siena, and Venice are all home to very large tourist populations during the summer, and the ubiquity of English means we’ve been witness and accidental eavesdroppers to all kinds of family and couple arguments. En route to San Marco Piazza in Venice, we saw one young Korean couple rowing over what was the correct route to take to the piazza. Honestly, Venice is such a warren of streets that even Google Maps gets confused about where your location is all the time. In the middle of their argument, the woman literally threw up her hands and ran away crying, with her husband in hot pursuit to apologize, but even after three streets (we were going the same way), she would not forgive him. That was one conversation which we did not need to know their language to know it was a very, very bad time. Another time, an American family on the train from Siena to Florence were having a bitter, ill-humored time arguing about cellphones and data usage. The grown son and his wife were sniping back and forth with his mother in very thick Southern accents about exactly how the technology worked and why it wasn’t possible to get messages from the other family members they were corresponding with. It made us both wince each time we heard a “Did you turn the data off again?!” behind us.

We’ll be the first to agree that there’s plenty to get upset about. There’s the hot weather, the bad food where you feel like you’re being ripped off, and the crowds and long queues for every museum, because everyone else is also on vacation visiting Italy. I think what pushes people over the edge is that in the back of your mind, you know you should be happy and having fun. And you are paying a ton of money and spending your precious vacation time to be fly halfway around the world to argue with your loved ones. So of course it sucks – you don’t want your argument by the Trevi Fountain to be your memory of your amazing Italian vacation.

We’ve learned to mitigate the worst of the travel by giving ourselves space and time, rationing time spent in museums to one a day (our record so far is five straight hours) so that we don’t start groaning at the sight of another room with oil paintings, and remembering that we actually do like to hang out with each other – those things all help us from becoming that next couple in someone else’s blog entry! And of course, actually having a lovely travel experience to remember. For example, our favorite memory from our first night was actually taking some time after dinner to walk to the Duomo. After the sun had gone down in Florence, the evening was warm and breezy and comfortable. Many other folks were taking the opportunity to be outside in comfort, not just sticking to the shaded side of the street, and some enterprising musicians were playing guitars and saxophones in the piazza. Looking at the large creamy marble cathedral, outlined in pale green and pinks, we just enjoyed being with each other and going no place in particular.

I’ll write soon about all the museums we’ve seen here so far (the current count is three), and we’ve definitely had fun with all our destinations so far, but honestly, the most important thing about Florence is that we’re enjoying this city more than any other place we’ve been to in Europe so far, and that’s mostly because we’ve slowed down!  

City of bells

Siena is a cacophony, which can be nice for a day or two, but it could really get on your nerves in the long term. Every morning, what can only be described as a cacophony of bells from several different churches start ringing at 7 am, and again at 8 am, continuing each time for about a minute. In the evening, they ring around 6 pm and 7 pm. For a small city which had 50,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 1300s, this city has a lot of churches. Outside our window, there are church bells on top of a parish that is literally next door. If you lean outside far enough, you can see San Domenico di Caterina, a large, elegant brick building to our right which is very typically Romanesque and does not have a lot of large windows, and then dominating our view from the apartment is the black and white striped masterpiece that is Il Duomo, Siena Cathedral.

To give a little background (though we’ll really dig into the history soon), Siena is about an hour and a half by train south of Florence in Tuscany. It used to be its own republic and a mighty city-state that once defeated Florence in war, but subsequently, became much more impoverished. As a result, Siena never had the funds to pull down their medieval buildings, and to this day, most of the city looks very similar to when it was built, sometime probably between 1100 and 1555 (the time of the Republic).

The first afternoon we arrived, we trekked nearly half an hour from the train station into the city, climbing the hillside to the city through a series of escalators and ramps, and then into the guts of a small medieval city with very narrow passageways that are lucky enough to fit one car and steep enough to merit stairs in a few places instead of smooth or scored stone pavement. Our Airbnb has an excellent view of Il Duomo as well as the surrounding hillside, and off in the distance, blue-purple hills punctured by the dark green poplars that are the hallmark of the Italian countryside. Outside our window are a few lovely restaurants who are capitalizing on the great view, and entertain folks deep into the night. Every day, there are also sparrows. They have colonized this city, perching in all sorts of small holes built into these buildings where they raise their young. They swoop about all day, but especially plentifully during dusk, scooping up insects and bugs. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had such a mosquito-free time, in comparison to our time in Venice!

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