(Me in front of The Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica.)
Being back in D.C. felt good. I have always enjoyed academia so going back to school was a natural move for me. I moved into a place near DuPont Circle in downtown D.C. - an apartment with several other students living there. We each rented a room.
We were actually located above a dry cleaner - Lustrous Cleaners. I might have used a dry cleaner a handful of times in my life, if that. But, there I was living right above one!
The first semester started up and I found myself amongst a diverse and very interesting, international collection of students. John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) was, and still is, considered a preeminent school for global scholarship. It naturally feeds into top government jobs, think tanks, NGOs, etc. It is highly considered. (I believe Wolf Blitzer, of CNN fame, graduated from there.)
Academic life has always been a familiar place for me-a good fit. But, for some reason, I did not take the academic portion of grad school all that seriously. Don’t get me wrong. I did well enough. But, I didn’t excel the way I did undergraduate. (Graduated from UC Berkeley Magna Cum Laude)
Nonetheless, I got into the swing of things and it all felt very natural.
As my first year was drawing to a close, I got it into my head that I wanted to take advantage of the Bologna, Italy year long program that SAIS offered. I found myself talking to one of the deans -I believe the Dean of Admissions if memory serves - about this prospect. He was very nice about this but did naturally wonder why this particular move as my emphasis heretofore had been Latin American Studies! I somehow explained that I was particularly drawn to this area of the world. Actually, I had not been to Europe yet, with all the travelling that had already taken place in my life, so this was not really surprising.
That request did come to fruition and, before I knew it, I was on my way to Bologna for my year abroad; a most excellent decision on my part! The SAIS Program had already provided a marvelous two week visit to Cuba, an exchange with the University of Havana. This had been around 1980 so very few Americans were allowed entry back then. The island was still very much in the grips of communism.
A quick and humorous story that took place during this visit…We, the students, were invited to the residence of the acting ambassador at that time for some refreshments, a cocktail party - if you will. Now, there wasn’t actually an ambassador during that period, as there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries. But he somehow informally represented a connection in this way.
It was a lovely evening and I was off to the side watching what was happening, very much in a sort of witnessing stance for some reason. The students were enjoying their libations - probably laced nicely with Cuban rum - and Mr. Smith was holding forth as students peppered him with questions, probably all very erudite, academic questions; which of course fit the occasion. We were there to learn about this island nation, a truly wonderful opportunity.
I just want to mention here…My mother had, by now, introduced me to astrology. She was not really into it herself but she, interestingly enough, had set up an appointment with Svetlana - the Washington Post Astrologer - as a gift for a recent birthday. That’s is a whole other story unto itself!
So, back to the festivities…I was watching Mr. Smith hold forth with the students enthusiastically and with great expressiveness. And, eventually, as the evening wore on, he took his leave. As he walked by me, I suddenly was inspired to ask him a question. I stepped toward him and politely said, “Mr. Smith, are you by any chance, a Leo?!”…a purely intuitive guess…
Well, this just amazed and delighted him! He turned and looked at me with a big smile and responded with a yes, and how did I know. I answered that it takes one to know one. (Yes, I am an August 14 baby.)
And then the conversation took an even more interesting turn as he said to me, “You know, the last person to ask me that was Fidel Castro, who is also a Leo!”
A fun and delightful interaction, indeed!
If need be said that this is not to take lightly the very difficult struggles that have been part of this beautiful island’s history. The Cuban people were so welcoming and warm, despite their situation. And, this is not to paint Fidel Castro as genial, innocuous fellow. But, I was granted this interesting exchange, a bit of sparkle during a great visit.
So, back to further travelling adventures. Italy awaited.
Arriving and diving into life in Bologna, upon looking back, seemed seamless and basically easy. A ready group of future friends awaited me - a wonderful, again international, group ranging from Indian to Turkish and more.
I found accommodations with some students near the graduate program in Bologna; two German sisters and a Swedish fellow. I remember my room on the second floor looked out on a picturesque street…that quintessential Italian scene of ochre-colored roofs along with hues in that range elsewhere. And I believe a church steeple was in view, as well.
On what was probably a Sunday, I found myself looking out that same window one late afternoon and feeling a deep melancholy, a melancholy not based on any given situation. It was such a familiar feeling - this melancholy - something I had experienced since very young. And, for some reason, Sundays seem to accentuate this experience. I mention this then for no other reason that it stands out, one of many snapshot scenes from that time….
No one would have necessarily picked up on this melancholy in me unless extremely perceptive. My behavior did not really exhibit this. It was a feeling that had taken a deep residence in me very early in my life. I think it was akin to feeling orphaned though both parents had been there. An almost primal disconnection from my family of origin, and primarily my mother, had left it’s mark. It would be years before this would begin to shift and dissipate.
So, my life in Bologna…A beautiful town known for its “Due Torre” (Two Towers in the middle of town), it was particularly gorgeous at Christmas. Lights would adorn streets and shops. And, the student mensa (dining hall).. Now that was memorable! For what seemed a pittance, one could opt for a several course meal in the middle of the day - and it seemed pasta in some fashion was always featured! One could even buy a little bottle of wine that could afford about two glasses. This really didn’t interest me but I remember it. Students would collect at the mensa for their repast from all the schools in the area. In fact, there was a veterinarian school right across from the Hopkins Bologna Program that I was attending.
As mentioned previously, I was not as focused on my studies while there. I did fine in my class work but not my usual stellar marks, as in university. Perhaps it had to do with it being in the aftermath of my father’s death. I don’t really know.
But, my, I received such a marvelous education not only by way of the academics but all the great trips we students took around Europe, both Eastern and Western.
I recall traveling to Florence with a group of students and visiting museums, such as the Uffizi. And Rome offered the sight of Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. I have a particular recollection of gazing upon the latter and witnessing this depiction of the profound sorrow of Mother Mary as she held her son, a gorgeous sculpture known worldwide…
And Venice, with its beauty and marvelous waterways, provided such fun and, needless to say, novelty by way of its unusual transport. And San Marco Square also provided lovely sights.
Further afield, we students were privy to a couple of weeks in then Yugoslavia. I recall we arrived shortly after Tito’s death. Tito was a beloved leader of the Yugoslavian people. I recall the dramatic scene of an enormously long line of people dressed in somber colors waiting their turn to pay their respects before his internment.
Then again, further afield included a month in Poland where we were invited to be guests at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland which, at that time, was experiencing an incipient uprising against the communist regime with Lech Walesa at the helm and his Solidarnosc Movement. It was an exciting time for the Polish people.
I also have a comical recollection that blue jeans were a very sought-after piece of clothing by the youth, commanding high prices on something of a black market…It’s vague, this recollection, but still remembered And who can blame the young (and not so young!). Blue jeans seem to have an allure the world over!
During my time in Poland, I had the opportunity to to travel around, and this included a visit to Zakopane, a resort town in southern Poland that offered vacationing and some leisure to the Polish people.
We also visited Black Madonna of Częstochowa, known as “Our Lady of Częstochowa.” The depiction of the “Black Madonna” stands out and still resides in my memory. There was a power to this experience.
I am representing here, obviously, just a fraction of the experiences to be had when I travelled around.
Our forays also included visiting the EU (European Union) and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Brussels, as well as the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in Paris. And, if memory serves, we visited the acclaimed Science Po (The Paris Institute of Political Studies).
And, yes, there was a stop in Vienna as well, where I tasted Sacher Torte, their famous dessert, and had the opportunity to watch the amazing Lippizaner Horses perform.
I even remember taking a train which traversed East and West Germany. While in East Germany, I recall how stark it all felt, though we were crossing at night and not much was visible. I recall hearing dogs barking, a sad and almost ominous sound…
I do look back in wonder at the fullness of this year abroad experience. We, the graduate students at John’s Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center - did indeed receive a very comprehensive education. And for that I am grateful.
Before I knew it, I was headed back home where a deeply transformative experience awaited me not long after. This would, in turn, lead me to over a decade of residence in a beautiful and powerful ashram (monastery) in both the United States and India…