Berry Tramel

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Italy travelblog: Touring OU's monastery

by Berry Tramel Modified: July 10, 2014 at 9:40 pm •  Published: July 8, 2014
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The Monastero S. Chiara, which will become OU's Arezzo campus. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
The Monastero S. Chiara, which will become OU's Arezzo campus. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

Buon giorno.

One final day in Arezzo on Monday, and we got a special treat. A tour of the monastery that OU bought a couple of years ago and is renovating to house its study-abroad program. Otherwise, we just walked around, enjoying an ancient city before our Tuesday train ride back to Rome.

Arezzo is a charming place. You get here and are stunned at the antiquity, but you quickly learn its streets and its nuances. And you feel safe. We interviewed some of the OU engineering students, and they talked about how their trepidation for something new and unknown quickly faded away and they now feel like they know the place well.

My sentiments exactly. We’ve found Arezzo to be a tourist-friendly place. Lots of tourists of all kinds of nationalities, but it’s not overrun with tourists. And the tourists all mingle in with Arezzo residents who live everyday lives in and around the ancient buildings. It’s really quite the place.

 

MONASTERO di S. CHIARA

Sometime in the 1200s, a couple of buildings were constructed next to each other in Arezzo. Sometime in the 1600s, those buildings were combined into one structure and turned into monastery. In the 21st century, OU president David Boren saw the monastery for sale and hatched the plan to make it the university’s Arezzo campus.

Kirk Duclaux is OU’s on-site director of Italian programs. Kirk gave us a tour Monday morning of the monastery, which is being restored and renovated, with a planned opening of 2016.

The monastery sits partially on an old Roman Road, dating back centuries, and the plan is to keep that road on the edge of the monastery as a pathway through a courtyard and into the back gardens. Inside the monastery is a water well dating back to 800 B.C.; the restoration will keep the well intact in an inner courtyard.

The Italians are serious about their history. National regulators monitor all changes to ancient buildings, so OU has had to go through a variety of steps to keep the monastery architecturally accurate.

The three-story monastery will be able to house 48 students. Of course, OU-Arezzo is a much larger program than that, with as many as 300 students coming each summer. The typical fall or spring semester number is 25-35, though Kirk wants to build up those numbers.

The monastery includes a chapel constructed in 1902, complete with some vintage artwork, that will be used as a lecture hall. Italian regulations demand that it periodically be used for its original purpose, so Kirk’s idea is to have an annual neighborhood celebration, complete with a Mass. Once a year use satisfies the requirements.

The campus/monastery also will include office space, classrooms, a library, a kitchen and a student lounge.

The monastery never has been open to the public. It was two private homes for centuries, then it was a convent for nuns.

The OU Foundation bought the monastery for $20 million, and Kirk said the renovation is under budget so far. Bricks from the 1500s and 1700s lay in the back, ready to be re-used as pavers.

It should be quite the place for what seems to be quite the program.

Jim Sluss, the OU engineering associate dean who has taught several summers in Arezzo, said studying abroad is a “life-changing experience.” Kirk called it an “accelerator.” Students grow up quickly. Not all adapt well, but most do.

Kirk says students don’t come to Italy to find something better, they come to Italy to find something different. We can certainly attest to that.

The monastery sits on the inside edge of Historic Arezzo. There are great views of Arezzo and the Tuscan countryside. Seems like a fantastic place to spend a semester.

 

TOILET TALK

I think it’s time we talked bathrooms. If you come to Italy, things are going to be a little different.

* Public bathrooms — on the streets, at tourist attractions, etc. — are not prevalent. You have to look hard for them and sometimes you won’t find them.

* Lots of unisex bathrooms. I don’t mean multi-stall bathrooms. But lots of unisex one-holers.

* Strangest of all, some public bathrooms are unisex at an outer room with sinks, then have separate doors for women and men. I’ve seen a couple of those and haven’t encountered a woman at the sink, but I have no doubts it would weird me out.

* If there are paper towels available in Italian bathrooms, I haven’t seen them. Lots of electronic hand dryers. My experience has been, about one third of them work.

* Flushing is an adventure, because there are a variety of mechanisms. Small knobs in the wall that you push. Large “buttons,” bigger than a softball, sometimes next to a smaller button, giving you the option of how much water to use. Sort of like a washing machine. It’s wild.

* And I’d like to know what bathroom designers are thinking. I’ve told you about our shotgun bathroom at the Rome hotel and the tiny shower at the Venice hotel. But our shower at the Continentale Hotel in Arezzo is one for the engineering books.

It’s actually a decent-sized bathroom. And it has a bathtub, unlike the first two stops, with a shower in the tub. But the tub has no shower curtain. Instead, a swinging glass door is hinged to the wall and rests on top of the tub. But it only extends along half the tub. Worse yet, the shower is not attached to the wall at the end of the tub. It’s attached on the side; not in the middle, probably a quarter of the distance of the length of the tub. It’s one of those swinging shower heads, so you can move it.

But if you’ve followed me, only half the length of the tub is protected from shooting water, and the shower is not at the end of the tub. So to keep your bathroom halfway dry, you have to stand at the very end of the tub, virtually on top of the drain. Which means your space is about like that 2×2 shower in Venice.

 

TUSCANY TALES

* We went back to our leather shop, La Bottega del Cuoio, where I had purchased my green shoes. The Dish hadn’t bought herself something, so she went purse shopping. The leather shop has purses in a variety of vibrant leather colors. The shop is small; 20×10 maybe, and that includes a small work area where the cobbler and an employee — or maybe his son — perform their magic. The aroma is fantastic. He makes shoes, purses, belts, wallets and bigger bags.

The Dish found a great orange purse she liked, so we got it. Then we walked around town some more, looking for something for our daughter, who’s a lot like me in that she never buys anything for herself and isn’t all that much inter material things. Finally, I said, why are we wasting our time with trinkets? If we’re going to buy Haley something, let’s get her something solid. So we went back to La Bottega del Cuoio and got Haley a leather purse, too.

We told the guy that would probably be it, but you never know. He laughed and said he closed at 7:30. Charming Italian fellow.

* Italian commerce is hard to figure. At noon Monday, less than 25 percent of the stores were closed. It wasn’t siesta time yet, so we didn’t know what was going on. Turns out, lots of places close on Monday mornings. Or just take Mondays off after a big weekend (but not after a light weekend). It’s kind of hard to figure. Not a lot of consistency. Our beloved leather shop wasn’t open until later Monday.

Charm is in abundance in Arezzo. Capitalism, not so much.

* We had dinner with Jim and Julie Sluss at the OU faculty-in-residence apartment, which is adjacent to the OU-Arezzo space.

A different faculty member rotates through the apartment throughout the year, as various instructors come over to teach. Jim is teaching two courses this summer. It’s a good space, with two bedrooms, counting an upstairs loft, and gave us a glimpse of modern living inside the ancient buildings of Historic Arezzo.

Dinner was excellent. Julie is an excellent cook and has immersed herself into Italian culture during their several trips over here. We had bruschetta on toasted bread (Italian tomatoes are wonderful), a pasta with pork and vegetables which was among the best pasta I’ve had in Italy, and finally lemon-pepper chicken with potatoes and vegetables. Wonderful meal.

* During a walk around Arezzo, we stopped for lunch at the Caffe’ dei Costanti, which was made famous in the movie “Life is Beautiful,” much of which was filmed in Arezzo. The Dish had some spaghetti, and I was ready for some seafood pasta, which was not on the menu. So I made my own. I ordered a penne dish for 6 Euro and the only fish on the menu, fried cod, for 6 Euro. Then I cut up my fish and mixed it in the pasta. Not bad for 12 Euro.

We sat outside at the café, right across the street from the historic Basilica di San Francesco. Nice, nice day.

* Walking back to our hotel late Monday night, we stopped for a gelato, the Italian ice cream. Gelato shops are all over Italy. Gelato strikes me as a cross between our soft-serve ice cream and the hard stuff, like you get at Braum’s or Baskin-Robbins. Gelato doesn’t seem to have as much milk as American ice cream, an observation made not through research but by the reactions of my stomach. And gelato seems to melt faster than our ice cream. But the flavors are delicious. I’ve taken a shine to lemon and/or caramel.

Arrivederci.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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