Friday, September 11, 2009

Preparing for a Pilgrimage

In addition to learning a bit of the main languages I’ll encounter, I’ve got to be prepared with some points of history. During my eight ‘euro-years’, I’ve compiled a cheat sheet to European history, divided into categories of Arts, Science, Religion, Rulers, and Significant Events from the 5th century BCE until the present time – clearly I’m from the generation of Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit! It might sound like I’m well into the red zone of the geek meter, but it’s the best way for me to keep it all straight when I’m on the go. How tragic it would be to see it all and not know what it means! My engineering education was sparse in the memorizations necessary to recall instantly such things like when the Cathars were doing their thing in the south of France, what was happening over in northern Italy? Yet, when you’re walking through it all, it suddenly makes sense.

What’s behind all the sudden burst of construction in the 12th century in northern Italy? Ah, right, that’s not long after the First Crusade modified the politics a bit and moved the struggle between the East and West away from Europe. The King of Genoa paired off monks and priests with a compass direction and number of days walk – go forth and build a parish church – then directed his subjects to get out of the overcrowded city and establish communities around the little churches in the now-safe countryside. And today, walk in the region beyond the Genoa city gates and you’ll see tons of little 12th century churches in villages or into the forests and stumble upon the ruins of an isolated 12th century church where, for whatever series of reasons, the village either never grew or later dissolved away.

Knowing a little factoid like that makes finding such things more meaningful. I wouldn’t be particularly content to wander by an isolated church and not wonder what its story is. Information signs aren’t always where you want them. So my little cheat sheet, printed on glossy postcard-sized photo paper gives my experiences more comprehensive depth. In a quick glance, I see that St Francis was a contemporary of Attila the Hun, Berlin was founded 50 years after Moscow, which itself was just after paper being made in Europe for the first time, which followed the development of watermills, which was when troubadours started roaming in tights around telling their poetic tales…

During these closing days of summer, I’m preparing for the next pilgrimage, not by power-walking to get in shape, but by hitting the books, googling around, learning the foundations of the languages I’ll need (Ukrainian, Turkish, Greek [I’ll just have to linguistically fake my way through Romanian and Bulgarian as best I can with English, German, French, and Italian…], fattening my cultural timeline cheat sheet with enough history about the areas where I’ll be walking so I can make sense of what I’ll see on the journey, and finally, boning up on the various cultures ahead of time for some context of what to expect and how to behave so as not to piss anyone off unintentionally.

So far, I’ve been delighted to find the Ukrainian-American community in Denver to be hugely supportive and welcoming. I’m excited every day when I can learn a little bit more about the rich history and proud and vibrant modern culture. I’m looking forward to arriving in Kyiv before the snow piles too deeply to pass comfortably. I’ve taken my notes from ‘Teach Yourself Ukrainian’ and just checked ‘Beginner’s Greek’ from the Denver Public Library. Turkish will follow. The planning part is fabulous, too. Another language gaff with my simple name: in the Ukrainian alphabet, I'm 'AHA'.