Extra Credit is video series that examines topics related to history in the Thunder Bay District and exploring that history.
This special episode takes us on a long voyage, across the ocean to Italy. For many years I have been leading student excursions to Europe, and after a long break due to Covid, we were able to complete our latest tour which took us around the central and northern part of Italy. Touching history allows us to experience events and historical places in a whole new light and perspective.
Hey kids! It’s been over a month since we left for our trip to Italy, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect back on our adventure. First off, it’s hard to believe that it’s been that long. Where has all the time gone? Well I guess one answer is that we were gallivanting around the Motherland for part of that. Hold on, Motherland? Ya, I was born in Canada, but my mom and dad were “off the boat” if you will from Italy. So, it is kinda the Motherland. Anyway, I digress.
I’m usually I’m a lot quicker to write this reflection, but I’ve had a hectic few weeks since we’ve returned. Oh ya, and I got an extra special welcome back present…Covid. It laid me up for a bit, and unfortunately I’m still not back to 100% yet. You win some and you lose some, right?
In any case, it is good to be back, but I certainly do miss being in Italy. It was a great break from the routine and being able to travel was fantastic. I really missed doing these tours and giving the students the opportunity to experience the history and culture of another place in the world. They are still talking about the amazing time they had and how life changing it was.
I have had several people ask me what was my favourite part of the trip and/or what was my favourite place to visit. That is such a difficult question. Most of the time I fumble through a response and struggle to find an answer. There were so many great places and moments. Rome was great to see again, though very busy. I was really struck by the Vatican, especially St. Peter’s Basilica, as I honestly do not remember it being so magnificent; the design and architecture is truly unbelievable.
Most of the students agreed with me that they enjoyed the areas outside of Rome more than Rome itself. I think it was all the craziness. I know for myself I was really impressed with places like San Marino. I knew that it was an independent country, but I did not know that most of it was situated on the top of a mountain with some pretty impressive engineering. Places like Rimini, Bologna and Florence had some really impressive history to them which I did appreciate. I guess the best of part of the trip was (and always is), enjoying the reaction of the students, which I already mentioned. I do these trips for them, maybe a little for me too, but mostly for them and seeing them have an amazing time leaves the greatest mark.
So we have our next trip lined up already and it has just been approved by the board. The plan is to return to Northern Europe in 2025, embarking on a (very similar) tour we did back in 2014. Called “Canada’s Battlefields,” it will take us to Amsterdam, the Scheldt area of Belgium, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Normandy and Paris. It will have a very different feel that this past trip to Italy, focussing a lot more in Canada’s involvement in the First and Second World War. Although I have to been to some of these places numerous times, there is always something new to see or learn in the process. Hopefully it will be as great as this past trip.
On a more local note, one of the things I am very thankful for is that fact that we have now pushed our way into spring, but since there’s still a bit of snow on the ground, you wouldn’t totally know it. March was below normal in terms of temperature and it has left us a bit behind of where we should be. However, some pretty spectacular temperatures in the last few days (like +20C at times) have melted a lot of snow (as you can see in the photos below taken 5 days apart). It is supposed to drop to below normal for the next few days, but hopefully that won’t impede things too much.
With the arrival of spring I am looking forward to the return of hiking season. It been a long haul since I was last out in October, so it will be nice to get out on to the railway again. Because I have been over the entire line, my focus is now redoing certain areas, especially ones that were done in the summer as spring and fall are more conducive to these types of explorations (the leaves tend to hide things quite well). My agenda isn’t super action packed, but there are enough hikes to fill the month of May for now.
Anyway, I better move along. I’m not sure when I’ll be back with more musings, but hopefully it won’t be too long. Until then…
Ciao ragazzi! Oggi è una giornata dolceamara (today is a bitter sweet day). The dreaded day has finally arrived, our last one in Italy. We only have mere hours left before we have to board our flight, which will take us from sun and +15 to snow and -4. Sigh. All good things must come to end though, right? It is shocking how quickly this trip flew by, as it seems just yesterday we landed in Rome and were eager to get our explorations started. It’s been a whirlwind of walking, crowds, amazing history, bus rides and changing hotels. Excited and fun, but exhausting.
Alright, we’re in the air now, 7.5 hours out of Toronto. We left Rome about 25 minutes late, so hopefully that doesn’t cause us too many issues on the other end as we have a tight turnaround in Toronto for our flight home. They just served lunch, which consisted of chick peas, chicken with tomato sauce, I think polenta and sadly no dessert, as we have a nut allergy in the vicinity. They said they’d try and find an alternative, so we’ll see what happens. It wasn’t bad overall, though the gentleman in front of me has decided to recline his seat, which made eating it these tight confines even more challenging.
As on the last flight, the entree was scorching hot (I used it to melt my frozen butter), which ironically contrasts with the temperature in the cabin, which is ridiculously frigid. I’m never usually cold, but I am absolutely freezing. I’ve busted out the blanket, so maybe I can stay warm enough to sleep at some point. It would be nice to catch up on my sleep, but I don’t want to snooze too long that I can’t get to bed tonight…ah, the first world problems of flying!
So fast forward a bit, and we’re more than halfway through the flight (according to the map we’re over Greenland). I was so cold, I went into my bag, which the other chaperones have nicknamed “Big Bertha Battistel,” and dug out my jacket. It’s at least keeping me reasonably warm though there’s still a cold draft. I’m still squished though, which does raise an interesting question, to recline or not to recline? I prefer not to recline, even though it may be slightly more comfortable. There is absolutely no room back here in steerage class and moving the seat back makes it even more claustrophobic. But that’s just me.
Back in Canada. We’re now sitting at our gate waiting for the flight to Thunder Bay. The rest of the flight was rather anticlimactic, though my entertainment screen bit the dust in the last few hours. I just filled in the voucher they gave me and I now have 15% my next flight…not too shabby! Before we landed they served our snack, which was either chicken or veggie baked pie heated to 6000 degrees Celsius. It wasn’t terrible, but I’ll be glad to have something to eat at home. Unfortunately they came around with a nut-free brownie for those of us who didn’t get one with the meal, but because I was asleep, they forgot all about me.
We’re all home now…what a long day! Our flight to Thunder Bay left and arrived on time. It was great to see all the families waiting for their kids to arrive back from Europe, tired, but happy to be home. I too am happy to be home, though it is a tad bit cooler here than it was in Italy. Anyway, I’m going to sign off for today. I’ll be back in a few days with some reflections on another student trip that is now in the books. Until then…
Buongiorno bambini! I know, there’s only so many ways you can spin good morning, but hey, I’m doing my best. I didn’t get anywhere near a full 8 hours last night, so I am feeling very, very sluggish today. I have some good brain fog going on, so much so that it is a struggle to find some clever words for this post. Hopefully some divine intervention will help, since we are going to il Vaticano oggi (The Vatican today). This certainly will be one of the highlights of the trip, since even if you are not religious and especially if you are, you can appreciate the magnificent architecture and artistry that inspired and went into the structures we will visit. Fingers crossed that breakfast will give me a little boost to get through the day 🤞
Let’s fast forward to 8:45 and we’re back at the hotel for the evening. I’m showering and sitting in the lobby waiting for the usual chaperone meeting. We had an eventful day, but thankfully not as busy as yesterday. We had a bit of a drive to the Vatican, where we arrived to meet our tour guide for visit to the Holy See. Again we had to divide into two groups, with 4 guys from St. Pats having to join St. Ignatius to even out the parties. Our guide today was Frederica, who was extremely pleasant and knowledgable.
We began with a quick trip outside, where we got a look at the Sistine Chapel, which cannot be seen from St. Peters’ Square, and other structures. From there we processed through the hallways of the Vatican Museum, again with ridiculously large crowds, to view the multitude of items in the collection. This ranged from sculptures, to paintings, to tapestries and many artifacts from Etruscan and Greek antiquity. Then we made our way through the chapel, which underwent an extensive cleaning since I last saw it in 1992. There are no photos and video allowed there, so we just took in the beauty of the ceiling, the Last Judgment and the other paintings that adorn the interior.
From the Sistine Chapel, we made our way to St. Peter’s Square and into the basilica, the most famous church in the world. I had seen it before, but maybe 18 year old me didn’t appreciate the amazing structure what what it is. It is unbelievably jaw dropping with its decor and architecture. The photos I took turned out well, so I hope that the video was equally fantastic. Before we left, we had a chance to visit the gift shop and then posed for a group photo in front of the square.
Our afternoon was very mellow, but still interesting. After lunch we walked to the Pantheon, where the crowds were much smaller than Sunday, so we were able to visit the inside. It was built by the Romans as a temple to the gods, and it’s dome is still a marvel of architecture in how it was designed and built. Then there was some free time in a market area, before we hiked over to the Theatre of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was murdered. Like I have on many occasions on this trip, I learned some new things during Kent’s explanation of the event.
Supper was at Taverna Carioli, which consisted of salad, lasagna and tiramis, which was all not bad. Our plan to end the evening was to have the bus drop us off at the shopping mall across the road from our hotel, but we have more time after supper tomorrow, so it was postponed until then.
Anywho, I better turn in since I did not sleep well last night. Tomorrow we are off to Anzio, which is about a 1.5 hour bus ride to the south. I’m sure the kids will appreciate a chance to sleep more on the bus, and I will love to see the scenery. Until then…
Ciao ragazzi! If you didn’t catch that, it’s hello kids, and it’s Day 3 of the trip. It’s just before 7:00 and I’m sitting in the hotel dining area waiting for breakfast. I was up at 5:45 after a rather good sleep, though I have not yet caught up (nor will I likely). The bed felt great to sleep in, though it has the same softness as the stone which makes up many of the buildings in this beautiful ancient city.
Anyway, my small gripe aside (I don’t really want to complain about the hotel room since I am in Rome), we do have another busy day ahead of us. The bus rolls at 8:00 for the Ardeatine Cave in the morning and the Colosseum/Roman Forum in the afternoon. It’s going to be a sunny, warm 20C today, though it will start to cloud over later in the day. We’re supposed to be out until 9:30 this evening, which will make for another tired group of kids when we return to the hotel tonight.
So breakfast was good, but interesting. They did have hot items such as eggs, potatoes and “sausage.” I use the term sausage loosely, because they more akin to hot dogs. Okay, let’s not fool ourselves, they were hot dogs. “Shrugs.” In any case, it was all good and the kids seem ready to go to our day. I’ll check in later.
It’s now 10:00 and I’m trying to stay out of the sun here at the Mausoleo delle Fosse Ardeatine. It is very warm today, not as hot temperature wise as yesterday, but I don’t think that there is as much of a breeze. I learned some new history today, as I had never heard of this site before. During WWII, the Germans massacred 325 Italians in these caves as retribution for a partisan bomb attack on occupying soldiers. Many were from prisons or were Jewish, and they were led 5 at a time into the caves and shot. Certainly not a happy piece of history, but one of sadly many that we need to learn about.
Holy moly! It is now 10:30 and we’re finally back at the hotel. What a long day! I’ve had a shower and feel a bit better, but I’m pretty pooped and my legs feel like jello. After we left the caves, we proceeded downtown and debussed near the Colosseum. We were given about 1.5 hours to get some lunch and look around before meeting at Constantine’s Arch for 1:15. Three of us chaperones (Kim, Mike and myself) stopped at little trattoria for a bite to eat. Sadly they could not honour my chicken selection so I ended up with a mozzarella and prosciutto panini, which was a decent replacement.
At 1:30 our tour guides arrived at our meeting location and the two schools split, each with their own person, ours being Igor (not a very Italian name, but he’s a local). The tour was fantastic, with a lot of great information, but I was shocked by the number of people and groups. It was insane and chaotic! I never expected that many people, especially on a Monday afternoon. This is my fifth tour and I’ve been to some popular spots in Northern Europe, but never had to deal with this type of traffic.
Anyway, the tour of the Colosseum was amazing and I don’t remember seeing it that well when I was last there in 1992. Igor took us from there into the Roman Forum, which I don’t believe we actually went into on the that trip 31 years ago. His knowledge of the history was incredible, and even though I teach ancient history, I learned some new things from his descriptions. It is certainly something else to see what the Romans were able to accomplish 2000 years ago
Leaving the Forum, we walked around a bit before we settled in for supper of bruschetta and pasta at Due Colonne restaurant. The meal was okay, though we were packed like sardines into the rather small building. Then we hit the cobblestones again, weaving through the packed streets again, past the Trevi Fountain to the Spanish Steps. Some of the places in Rome are neat to see at night, and the steps were one of them. I kind of remember the 1992 visit, but it was certainly great to refresh my memory.
It’s been a brutally long day and a busy evening, so I’ll sign off. We’re heading to the Vatican tomorrow, so I’ll have a lot to report again. Until then…
“Are you ready kids? Aye, aye captain!” Our captain will definitely ask, and we will respond in the affirmative. We are ready to go! Haha, oh the irony. I’m sure there are some folks reading this that will have no idea what I’m referring to, but the kids will get it. Maybe you need to live in a pineapple under the sea 😉
Okay, we are all boarded and about to leave the gate. We managed to get the students shuffled around the cabin and sitting with their friends for the most part. We are situated mid-plane, right above the wing. Hopefully I’m able to get a good shot of the sun coming up as we zip across the ocean toward Europe, chasing the dawn. After I get some sleep that is. Right now it is stifling hot in here, but it will definitely cool down when we get to altitude. We are starting our taxi, so I’ll check in after supper…I wonder what we’re eating?
Well that was interesting. I was absolutely starving when we finally got our food, as it is now 10:10 local time and I last ate at 1:30. So we had the option of chicken or pasta, so took the chicken. Besides the entree, we were given a small container of potato salad, bread, butter, cheese and a brownie. It wasn’t terrible, but certainly not filling. The chicken was some sort of pot pie? that included potato, corn and peas; it looked awful and was heated to the same temperature as the surface of the sun. Thankfully my seat buddy, Kim, gave me her bread and butter, and scammed me another cheese. And then I ate an energy bar too! So I feel better now, and hopefully can get some shut eye. See you in the morning.
Good Sunday morning kids, or more appropriately, Buongiorno Ragazzi! It’s now 9:00 local time and we are currently over the UK. I mostly slept after supper, which is a good thing, so I feel remotely human, though you need to be a contortionist at times. The accommodations here in steerage class leave much to be desired. So, quick update, we are now almost at the Swiss border as I had to take a break to brush my teeth and eat breakfast, which consisted over a yogurt, croissant and water. Better than nothing I guess, but I never object to a yogurt. We will be landing soon, since we’re supposed to arrive at 10:45. The flight seemed to go by very quickly, and we are eager to hit the ground in Rome, though I could really go for a shower.
It’s now 5:00 local time and I finally have some time to sit. After we landed, we had a bit of a journey to get through customs, collect our bags and meet our Tour Director Kent in the concourse. Then we boarded a bus which brought us downtown for a walking tour of Rome. We started near the Ponte Sant’Angelo to the Piazza Navonna, where we stopped for a bite to eat. From there it was to the Pantheon, which was built during the Roman period and is the longest continually used building in the world. Then it was off to the Trevi Fountain, which was an absolute zoo, since it’s Sunday and there was plenty of people out and about. Now we’re waiting for a pizza supper after quite the hike from the fountain.
At the hotel now, showered and changed. Sweet Jesus that was one of the best showers of my life…I feel like a new man! I’m sitting in the lobby right now as I wait for the first of many chaperone meetings where we’ll have a chance to discuss today’s events and plan ahead for tomorrow before we do rooms check to make sure the kids are all settled in for the evening. I’m still beat though, as that was a lot to take in for two days. My feet are still killing me, so hopefully they feel better by the morning.
On a good note, I’m full. Supper was awesome! I’ll have to get the name of the restaurant (Trattoria Polese), but the pizzas were fantastic and they brought as many as you wanted with salad. The margarita was okay, but I particularly enjoyed the prosciutto. Fingers crossed the meals will continue to be this good the rest of the trip. Anyway, I should wrap things up for today so I can be fresh for tomorrow’s adventure, which will take us to Ardeatine Cave and the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Until then…
Sorry, what? Well, depending on your knowledge of 70s rock music, particularly 70s Canadian rock music, some of you know exactly what I’m referring to. Unfortunately, while the iconic trio Rush produced some great hits, including “Fly by Night,” this is sadly not the topic of this post. It is a great song though.
Hey kids, it’s me again! As promised, I didn’t wait forever to write once more, as it’s only been a month and a half since my last blog post. I know, I’m being a little facetious here since there is a different impetus for returning to the keyboard so soon. If you read the January 19th entry, you’ll know that as reported in the title, I’m hopping an overseas flight presently. And when I say shortly, I mean in 3 days. But I don’t want to spoil all the fun details right away…I have to build the drama first!
Well, its March, which means that the school year is rapidly disappearing. We are more than a month into a new semester but it feels like yesterday that it just started. With the break coming up next week and spring around the corner, it won’t be long before it’s June. I know there’s still a lot of teaching that needs to happen between now and then, but it seems like every year things go by faster and faster.
Ironically in my last post, I neglected to mention the weather, which is a familiar gripe of mine. Surprisingly, there isn’t much to complain about since we have had a fairly decent winter. I know, I’m shocked as well. I guess since we had such an awful winter and early spring last year, maybe Mother Nature owes us. Now I shouldn’t speak too soon, since it snowed every week last year from mid-March to mid-April…I don’t want to jinx it!
So, let’s dig into this trip business. After two years of delays, having to cancel, rebook and re-recruit for the trip twice and numerous headaches, we are in the final countdown for our adventure to Italy. I originally planned this trip in the spring of 2019 when we returned from the previous excursion that took us to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. My older son, Ethan, who is coming on the trip, was in Grade 8 at the time. He’s now graduating from high school in June. I can’t believe it’s been four years! I certainly feel for all the students that have had to endure all the cancellations and especially for those who were not able to travel as their time at the school ended before the Covid restrictions were lifted. It’s been quite the ordeal.
It is an understatement to say that I am rather excited for this tour, since I have not been to Italy in a long time, like 30 years long time. My last trip was in March 1992, when I was but an 18-year-old high school student, myself on an EF tour. Actually, that was the first ever overseas excursion from the school; now I’m leading students back. It’s kinda like the line in Episode IV of Star Wars, a New Hope, when Vader says to Obi Wan, “The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now, I am the master!” I guess I am now the master, or leader I should say…sorry to get a little Star Wars geeky here.
Anyway, I guess I should describe this trip a little bit, shouldn’t I? The tour name is World War II and the Liberation of Italy, which is another history themed excursion (which we always do). We start our adventure in Rome, where we will be spending a number of days exploring places such as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican and many other places. On Day 5 we have a day trip to Anzio, the site of an American landing in 1943 (with a decidedly Canadian connection). The following day we leave Rome behind for the east coast of Italy, with a stop at Monte Cassino, the location of a Medieval monastery and one of the longest battles of the Italian Campaign. On the east side of the country, we first visit Ortona, where the Canadian Army battled the Germans in intense urban for control of the city over Christmas 1943. Then it’s on to Rimini and the San Marino area, followed by a stop in Florence, or Firenze as the Italians call it. At the end of Day 10 we return to Rome so we can board our flight home the following morning.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a great deal of excitement, especially since many of our group have been waiting four years for this to happen. Personally, it will be nice to visit Rome again, but seeing some new parts of Italy will be the best part for me. Experiencing it all with Ethan will be the icing on the cake. His 18th birthday falls midway through the trip, and part of me really wants to savour the moment, as I don’t know how many more times I’ll be able to travel with him like this. Sorry, sentimental dad moment.
Anywho, it’s time to get rolling. You already know you won’t have to wait long for the next check in, as it’s only a few day away. Until then…