My weekend as a Buddhist Monk

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I know Cain was raised in the Shaolin tradition. I just liked the pic.

A little bit ago, I went to live with the monks at the Amaravati Monestary just outside of London. For a weekend.

I unplugged for two days, leaving all the distractions and BS of real life ( minimal as they might be in my current situation ) outside and behind, and for two days worked on being mindful, being introspective, and listening to any advice my inner-self was willing to share with me. I was willing to set aside two days to try something different, to try something many, many others before me had done and claimed helped them increase the quality of their lives.

I was not disappointed.

No matter where you live, there’s likely a monastery or meditative retreat that could help you do the same thing within driving distance. Maybe more than one.

Some are big and you’d definitely notice them. Signs out front, clearly a special place set aside, a reserve in more ways than one. But other times you might have driven or walked past it on your way to Starbucks a zillion times and never known it was there. Not all of these kinds of places invite outsiders to visit, but lots do.

By “retreat” I mean a place you could go for a day, a weekend, a week, or longer. By “monastery” I mean a ( usually Buddhist, but maybe other variety ) place where monks and/or nuns are working full time on their personal development towards Enlightenment. If they’re open to the public, these places welcome newcomers who want to spend a day or longer unplugged. Both types are most commonly free, even if you stay for weeks, though you’ll be expected to participate in the routine – chores and meditation. Don’t worry, the chores are things you know how to do, and they’ll teach the meditation; they assume you don’t know anything.

When I say “free” I mean they don’t charge. They’ll certainly accept a donation if you want to make one, and there’s a kind of expectation that you’ll bring food of some kind, but if you’re not inclined to give back you could just show up and hang out for a week, working on your Enlightenment thing.

Just for clarity, in this post when I say “monastery” I mean that, or a meditative retreat that might be run by non-monks/nuns.

Unplugging – what you do there

Ever wish you could unplug?

Or maybe you don’t wish to, but you know in the back of your mind somewhere it’d be a good idea. Life is noisy or stressful, people are fucking annoying, the job is stressful, and you just want things to be -simple- for a short while. Your current daily thing is bugging the shit out of you, or maybe you’d just like to try something different. A stay-cation of sorts, but definitely something a little more mindful than bingeing on “Pretty Little Liars” on Netflix.

Your local monastery is the perfect place for this. Not expensive, not hard to get to, totally looking forward to you being there, and great for a little reset-button-pushing.


Question – Will they make me join their cult?

Answer – No.

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They’re definitely not going to try to convert you. It’s not like that. You won’t have to shave your head, give up any possessions, wear funny robes, or anything along those lines. Part of the “work” a monastery does is make itself open and available to seekers looking to learn more about the monastic experience, or more about what they teach there, or just learn a bit of quiet mindfulness. They don’t give a shit about trying to make you join, or changing you or your life – a huge part of their universe is the idea that we all change ourselves, starting with making a decision to do so. They’re not looking to change you, only help you exactly as much as you want. And also, providing you a great environment to do this, if only for a weekend.

When I say “unplug” I mean exactly that. You can bring your phone, but most monasteries will expect you to keep it in your bag. Your Kindle or laptop… probably just leave those at home.

A quick aside – If this right here sounds like a deal breaker for you, you might be more in need of a break than you think. Just sayin’.

The belief is that during your mindful time at the monastery, you’ll be looking inward. You spend a lot of your regular day looking outward – answering emails, texting, watching traffic, cleaning up after the kids, making sure that project gets done, remembering to pay the electric bill, and so on. That’s all outward-directed stuff.

cord-unpluggedAt the monastery, they’re going to kind of insist you go inward. This is called “being mindful,” and for normal people with no training, this starts with leaving the laptop at home and putting the phone in Airplane Mode. And of course taking a few deep breaths, because just this can be a little stressful, eh?

Deep breath in. Be aware of your breathing. Hold it for a moment. Now let it out.

See? You feel better already.


What to bring to the monastery

Be cool and bring a bag of food. Their monastary website probably has some suggestions. Bring some comfy clothes you can sit around in. Leave the graphic t-shirts, sport coats, funny hats, and expensive shoes at home. Trying to be a fashionista at the monastery is a special kind of ridiculous. Bring comfy shoes, and a hoodie if you get cold. They might have location-specific rules depending on who runs the monastery – the one I stayed at wanted you to wear long sleeves – so follow those rules.

If you stay overnight, you’ll likely be doing something outside, so dress for this too.

You make the arrangement to stay, even if just for a day, ahead of time. You do this like you’d make any other sort of reservation – you call, or more likely message like email. I made arrangements with the “Guest Monk” through email to stay the next weekend.

Monastery Rules

A thing about “rules” at the monastery: part of the deal with providing you a pretty-much-free place to learn and try the mindfulness thing, giving you a retreat from your stressful life, is that you’ll be a good sport and follow The Program. What this entails exactly varies from place to place according to the traditions of whomever is running the place. As I understand it, where I stayed is pretty typical; The Program there went like this:

  • wake up at 4am, with the gong ( cooler than it sounds )
  • do morning stuff ( like S-S-S ) for an hour
  • attend morning meditation in the temple from 5-630
  • help with chores inside from 630-730
  • eat breakfast as a group
  • do chores outside until 1130
  • eat lunch as a group
  • do “mindful shit”
  • ( maybe no evening meal – you’ll be fine )
  • go to bed early enough so that waking up tomorrow at 4am doesn’t kill you

They’re going to expect you not to be on your phone. They’re going to need you not to yell, or otherwise interfere with other people trying to be mindful. Some places will insist you don’t talk at all, but at the monastery I went to this was not a thing; people talked all the time – just not about stuff like reality TV.

They’re going to expect you to pitch in with chores, to eat only at mealtimes, and not be disruptive to the routine or other people visiting or living there. They’re definitely going to expect you to come with an open mind, and an honest desire to give The Program a try for the duration of your stay.

If you decide at any point, anytime day or night it’s not for you, of course you can leave. Never a problem.

They’re going to expect you to sleep in the dorm appropriate to your gender, and not to flirt, chase anyone, or even talk or pay attention to that kind of thing. You’re not there for that, and you’re definitely not supposed to bug other people who are there to be mindful with your ham-handed attempts at flirting. Leave that stuff outside. If you come to the monastery with a sweetie, no PDA.

Doing the mindful shit

the-empire-strikes-back-luke-skywalker-and-yodaAll monasteries will have meditation as serious parts of the schedule. There might also be lectures about Buddhism or the mindful perspective. The chores you do will be simple, and also work to provide you with time to reflect and look inward.

The local rules are there to help reinforce the mission to be mindful, to look within. You’ll be up pretty early, so as not to waste the day, but to also encourage the feeling of “holy crap, it’s 9am and I feel like I’ve done a day’s worth of stuff already.” A good feeling. Meals are communal, and pretty simple. This helps you realize that you don’t need to make a production of meals or spend a lot to satisfy your body. The noon meal is huge, and filling, and it’s the last one of the day.

They’ll assume you’ve never meditated before, and will be happy to give you some instruction. Each place teaches slightly different variations. Whatever flavor of meditation they teach, if you’re not used to sitting still for 90 minutes and doing nothing, this will be hugely difficult.

We’re not used to this. We’re used to attending to the outside world. When things are quiet, most of us crave distraction. We hit Facebook or Reddit, find something to clean, or someone to talk to. We don’t care to be alone and quiet with ourselves because most of us weren’t trained for that. We’re thought that it’s not “productive time” and that it’s just being lazy.

Some of us have a definitely problem with being alone with ourselves. Meditation is specifically designed to help with this. It is definitely work, and it is definitely productive. If you work at stilling your mind, quieting the “monkey brain” that’s screeching inside all of us, amazing things will happen. I promise.

But working on this is a definite pain in the ass. It will be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done. Even if just for an hour.

No one will expect you to be any good at it. They’ll gently remind you not to be hard on yourself, and when something breaks your concentration, just turn aside and start again with the blank slate. Or whatever. Part of this is learning not to be so hard on yourself, not to beat yourself up.

After a bit of time and effort, you’ll be able to hold that stillness for a few moments. It will be surreal. It will surprise you.

Then you’ll think of that next episode of “Pretty Little Liars,” you’ll chastise yourself for breaking mindfulness, you’ll remember not to chastise yourself, you’ll put the idea of Netflix aside, and this next time the stillness will last a bit longer.

In that stillness, sometimes, you’ll learn things. Very valuable, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful things. the quiet you’re striving so hard for will allow stuff to bubble up that the smarter part of who you are is trying to tell you, but can’t get across because of all the daily BS you immerse yourself in.

This mindfulness, as well as taking steps to physically remove yourself from a noisy and distracting life, unplugging and living for a short while at a place apart from that world, is what the monastic experience is all about. For a day, for a weekend, or longer.

Meditation will be a big part of this mindful practice. There will also likely be a relevant library on-sight, if that’s your thing. There may be gardens, fields, courtyards, or other places suited to quiet contemplation. There will be supportive people all around trying to do the same thing you are.

Ten minutes after I arrived, I got me some enlightenment

When Kim and I arrived, she immediately went off with some girl who’d spent previous time in this monastery, and helped her get settled in the women’s dorm… which left me by myself, moments after arrival. I sat in the reception area of this monastery, endeavoring to be quiet and respectful ( like I was supposed to be, right? ) waiting for the “Guest Monk” to come get me and orient me.

As the moments turned into minutes, still sitting by myself I watched people enter the main group area of the monastery, but no one came to tell me where to go, or what to do.

At first I fidgeted. Then I started to get really bothered.

I was shocked by how much this bothered me, and caused me to be anxious. And maybe it was the environment of the monastery itself, or the idea that I had set aside this time to learn about myself, but my first lesson hit me pretty hard in that moment, no meditation required:

Lesson 1 – as a matter of routine, I put an awful lot of stock in what I’m “supposed” to be doing, at any given moment. If I feel I’m failing at this, I’m immediately pretty hard on myself. The monkey brain starts chattering loudly.

What am I supposed to be doing? Am I missing out on something? Will I be reprimanded? Or worse, will people just quietly look at me and think “poor, dumb newbie. He just doesn’t understand this place.”

Where the f*** was the guy who was -supposed- to be here orienting me? WTF? I’m just sitting here!

Lesson 2 – I put an awful to of stock in what others “should” be doing to help me along in life, and in doing so I give up a lot of agency.

Lesson 3 – both of these things cause me a lot of stress

Lesson 4 – both of these things are -totally- my own decision. I could just as easily choose a number of other options: Just to not feel stressed. Just to relax and be patient. Or to stand up and go see what the delay might be, or even better – just go find somewhere to fit in. Or to read something, make better use of my moments than sitting, stewing, and stressing about what I -should- be doing, or what someone else -should- be doing to help me.

Wow.

No meditation required, and ten minutes in I’d already learned some maybe-life-changing stuff about myself.

I could have had this epiphany anywhere. I could have had this realization at home while watching Netflix and texting on my phone while chasing Pokemon. But I didn’t. In all the zillions of moments I’ve had to myself, I didn’t learn all this there in front of the TV. I learned it within moments of sitting my ass in the chair of the reception area of the monastery.

To wrap this post up

I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. My time at the monastery was very well spent. I’d be happy to talk with you about this, or answer any questions, or help you find a place you could check out for a day, or a weekend, or longer. Drop me a line.

If I’m not meditating, I’ll get back to you.

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Such a puss, do not be.

What I’ve been doing, besides blogging

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Hint: I have not been playing golf.

It’s sunrise in Athens. We just left the port in a ferry the size of a small cruise ship, headed for Naxos. The ride is smooth; the ship is gliding out of the protected bay and into the Ionian Sea, gracefully making it’s way across still, strikingly blue water around the peninsula before we turn towards the rising sun and make for the Cyclades. We’re in one of the lounges, watching morning Greece slip past in the distance while we write.

For me, writing is like working out or playing a sport in many ways. It’s exercise, albeit mental. when I’m done I feel invigorated, like I’ve accomplished something. Further, I feel like I’ve used a part of me that needs to be used, you know? Like, made use of some available talent instead of letting it sit fallow somewhere in my schedule and my mind.

Also like exercise, it’s clearly a habit. If I make a go of it for a few days then it’s pretty easy to kept going. But if something comes up and my daily routine gets changed, then for me it’s very easy to fall out of a set routine. Like there’s that little part of me that was waiting patiently while all this “being productive disciplined” shit was happening, and right when there was the slightest opportunity, this thing spoke up.

“Hey, you’ll do this tomorrow. This is a long flight. Can’t write on a travel day.”

Which, of course, is ridiculous. In his amazing book “The War of Art” Steven Pressfield calls this insidious little voice “the resistance.” And everything he said about it is true, at least in my experience.

So, while in Florence I blog like a fiend. I also dedicate time to the current writing project without fail on a daily basis. But when there’s a break in my routine, I have a travel day that takes me to London and then to Chicago for a conference, BAM. Or rather, a quite sort of -snap- and that’s it. I’m off the path, and not writing. I probably don’t even notice it for days.

At some point I realize it and think “eh. It’s just a blog. ( insert excuse why it’s not important, here ).”

And that day goes by with no writing. And then another. Now and then I’ll be at the computer and think “Hmmmmm, I should write.” And then I’ll either suddenly remember I haven’t written a reply to an email I got three days ago, I’ll check Facebook or Reddit for this one thing that pops up in my mind, and thoughts of writing, or of “practicing my art” as Pressfield would put it, are gone. banished and forgotten for another day or two.

Deep inside somewhere, The resistance is giggling. Quietly, so as not to draw attention to itself.

It’s giggling because in one fell swoop it also managed to get me to stop posting pics to the blog’s Instagram as well. That’s how The Resistance works, you see. It it gets a single, it almost always goes for the double or triple. And almost always gets it.

After Chicago I returned to London and renewed my effort to finish the writing project Kim and I are working on together. i stayed with it for some days, maybe a week, then something against nudged me off of it. I never got back to blogging, even after friends asked me “Where’s the next post?” and acquaintances wrote “For the next post, you should talk about such and such.”

Buy the way, if you ever write a blog, or anything that other people read, when someone nudges you like this, you should really start writing immediately. Pull over first, no need to write right there in traffic. But get to it soon, because they’re not nagging you, no matter what The Resistance might have you believe. By mentioning they’re looking forward to the next bit of whatever you decide is important enough to ut out there, they are paying you a tremendous compliment, and doing you a favor. Showing you a bit of respect. Return the favor, and take up your art again.

It took me a while, but here I am. Nice to be back with you all. That’s also a little trick, if you didn’t know it – if you can’t think of what to write about, write about not being able to write. I actually had a few other ideas of blog topics, but I thought this whole habit/nudging/resistance/art thing was also worth talking about.

I’ve read in a few places that for a habit to become ingrained it needs to be practiced for 21 days. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t mean I need to write 21 little mini-novellas, like I am with this post today. But I need to show up to the plate and swing the bat at pitches.

Be more aware of the things you’d like to do that produce something, that are creative. The things that make you feel good, because they tap into your soul. They’re not easy, maybe. But you’ll know them because they’re 1. creative and 2. they make you ( and maybe someone else ) feel good. Also, I’d add 3. they require effort against The Resistance, because this is almost always true. Be more conscious of your habit of doing these things, and even more important why you -don’t- do them. What are the excuses you find yourself repeating? What’s keeping you from your art? That’s The Resistance, and it is not your friend.

Pressfield also wrote “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which is an equally fulfilling read and a good movie.

Seven ( yes seven! ) remote jobs for you

A great little article  from FastCompany was included in the current Digital Nomad Weekly newsletter and details seven different jobs that are very well suited to remote work. The jobs all require a bit of learning on your part, but none of them require a specific ( or any ) degree, or a set number of years of experience. You can self-learn any of the disciplines ( with some self-discipline ) and start up in your spare time before you make any big leaps.

I’m familiar with all of the seven options they discuss; if you’d like any addition information, feel free to reach out in the comments or by direct message.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice that UX architect ” was not listed, so we’ll just call that job #8.

 

Note – at this moment, I am sitting at a coffeeshop in London, writing this post and doing some work as a Content Entrepreneur, as well as a UX Architect.

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Today’s office – Maison d’etre, Canonbury, North London

 

mind the gap

You may have noticed, there’s been a gap of about two weeks since we’ve posted. Kim’s been facilitating at a meditative retreat outside Florence where they take a vow of silence ( and no net access-shivers ) while I spent two weeks back in the US. We’re both back in London now, for the next 3 weeks or so.

Kim will likely write about her retreat, but during the time we’ve spent apart she’s developed an even deeper appreciation for from-scratch foods, and is much more mindful. In general, and about how she’d like to see her day go.

For my part, I spent time with friends and family. In sad news, our family dog Marius had to be put to sleep. I was there for a time very close to the end and it was painful to watch that decline, but I’m taking some comfort from the fact that now ( I believe ) he’s in a better place. Certainly my life is better for him having been with me. In happier news, I also spent time at GenCon, “The Best Four Days in Gaming.” I haven’t missed one in the last 18 years and it felt like a special sort of nerd homecoming, being back in Indy. 

I need to get back in the walking habit, and the not-eating-garbage habit. I know Kim will help me with this.

(^_^

I also need to get back into the blogging habit.

a bit about meditation

I’m about to attend a 10 day meditation retreat in the Tuscan hills of Lutriano, Italy. I’m in the neighborhood, so I figured, why not?

The organization is an international meditation group with centers worldwide.  I am considered an old student with this group because I have completed at least one 10 day training with them, in the Midwestern USA. In fact this will be my 4th one in about 5 years.

The retreats are a full 10 days and they are serious.  You arrive on day 0 to get oriented and settled into your room. There is very little talking, as you take a vow of silence which starts the first evening. There is no wi-fi, writing or reading. The days begin early and consist of a daily routine of meditation, breaks, mealtimes and instructional times. The vow of silence ends on day 10 and everyone leaves on day 11 in the morning.

The style of meditation taught is called Vipassana, which simply means ‘to see things as they are’. The technique is largely based on observing sensations in your body and is taught in small, progressive chunks throughout the course.  The teacher in me loves the progressive curriculum because it is skills based, has regular check-ins with teachers and plenty of guided instruction and practice.

It is non denominational and does not conflict with any religious or spiritual beliefs.  It is rooted deeply in Buddhist philosophy, but there are no rights or rituals.  It is focused on learning the technique to gain benefits.

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Typically I don’t meditate outside because there are so many distractions…but this little girl is so darn cute!

When I tell people this I get a number of mixed responses. Anywhere from ‘Wow, that’s awesome, I’d love to do that too!’ to ‘Wow that’s so anti-social, are you sure it’s not a cult?’ And a lot of things in between! Most people are aware of or participate in meditation and mindfulness practices but few spend so much time learning to refine the technique.

No, it’s not a cult. After being involved with this group for over 5 years I have not been offered any Kool-aid nor asked to give up some major part of my life! I come and go as I please 🙂 Yes, it is taking a break from society and socializing to sit with yourself, but for a specified period of time only and for good reason.

 

A typical day looks like this:

  • 4am rise and shine
  • 4:30-6:30am meditate in room or in meditation hall
  • 6:30-8am breakfast break
  • 8-9am group meditation
  • 9-11:00am instructional meditation time
  • 11am-12pm lunch break
  • 12-1pm rest and interview with the teacher
  • 1-2:30pm instructional meditation time
  • 2:30-3:30pm group meditation
  • 3:30-5pm instructional meditation time
  • 5-6pm tea break
  • 6-7pm group meditation
  • 7-8:15pm teacher’s discourse
  • 8:15-9pm group meditation
  • 9-9:30pm question time
  • 9:30pm-lights out

Why do I meditate?

A ten day meditation is not generally relaxing. It is work and takes determination. But I come out of it feeling better than any vacation or other type of break or relaxing activity.

Meditating helps me stay calm and calms me down. If I am upset about something or am having a hard time accepting something that is going on in my life, I meditate. I practice the thing I am struggling with whether it be forgiveness, acceptance, letting go, seeing things from a new perspective, etc. Meditation works for me in the moment. Also, when I have been meditating regularly for a period of time, I find that I naturally stay calmer and get upset less often about ‘the little things’.

Meditation helps my focus.  I have a good amount of attention deficit going on at any given moment! So many of us do these days. It can keep me from getting things done and can be a source of frustration in my life.  Meditation is like the perfect cure for this. No pharmaceuticals necessary. Whenever I meditate I am literally practicing keeping my focus. We get better at what we practice, right?

This increased focus also leads to clearer thinking. When I am focused, I become more sharp and able to problem solve. I see more options because I’m not letting my thoughts run like drunken sailors all over the place. This helps my confidence. I decided to start a homemade soap business after a 10 day meditation retreat!

While meditating itself is not always very relaxing, I almost always feel more relaxed after I am done.  I feel lighter, and happier. My wellness is improved. This is a benefit I can not deny. I experience it over and over again.

If you are interested in learning more about Vipassana, check out this website.

 

 

Florence – how we visited

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The facade of the Florence Cathedral

If you ever visit, you may not have a month to explore the city like we did, but maybe some of the things we did can help you make decisions about how to spend your time. We have visited more places then we described below, but these have been the high points so far.

Of course during our stay in Florence we wanted to see all “the big things.” We had the luxury of not feeling rushed, and we managed to check everything off our list.

First, let’s talk about the stuff downtown

Six of the most renown sites are collectively referred to as “The Florence Duomo Complex.” These sites consist of:

  • Giotto’s Bell Tower – affording an amazing view of the Florentine city and countryside
  • The Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore – amazing and immense gothic basilica
  • Brunelleschi’s Duomo – an amazing rotunda atop the cathedral
  • The underground archeological site below the Cathedral, Santa Reparata
  • The Baptistry, a large domed building across from the Cathedral
  • the Opera del Duomo Museum

We bought a combo ticket for all of these sites for 15 Euros, a great deal for what you see. You can buy the ticket online here, but we bought ours in person at the base of the Bell Tower, in an office that opened at 8am.

A note about the combo ticket – it’s good for 7 days after you purchase it, but once you validate it at the first site on the list above, you have 48 hours to see all the sites before the ticket expires. Plan accordingly.

The ticket allows you to stand in the general admittance line for each of these sites. For the Cathedral and the Duomo ( the Dome ) we recommend you show up early, on different days. These lines get crazy-long very quickly. These two sites open at 830am, and we were in line for our visit to the Duomo by 745am with a very comfortable position, almost first. We splurged and spent 15 ( additional ) Euros apiece to see the Cathedral with a guided tour that enabled up to bypass the huge line.

A note about the Bell Tower and the Duomo: if you’re a little claustrophobic like I am, I can’t recommend strongly enough the importance of arriving early for the ascents of the Duomo and the Bell Tower. Both of these sites involve walking up serious stairs in very cramped passageways. If you are near the front of the line in the morning for these sites, this insures that after you ascend to the top and look around you can descend back to street level without pushing up against a mass of sweaty people in a cramped passage.

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Up high view of the Duomo

As I walked past the seriously long line at 2pm in the sweltering sun this afternoon, I hope these poor people -love- what they are going to see, for they are surely suffering for the opportunity. Baking in the hot sun for 3 hours, then squeezing past their sweaty neighbors for a dizzying climb is not my idea of a good time on vacation.

That being said, the views are amazing, inside ( the Duomo ) and out. But the tight spaces…  ugh. Rough for me. The Duomo in particular.

Also, there’s this – the Duomo and the Bell Tower afford amazing views, but if you’re at all afraid of heights, these attractions probably aren’t for you.

The Bell Tower also has a line at times, but this seemed to vacillate during the day. We went early the first day, buying our tickets and seeing the Bell Tower with no line, then as I’ve mentioned spent the additional 15 Euros to jump the line for the Cathedral ( and the crypt Santa Reparata ), and then the next day got in line early for the climb up to the top of the Duomo.

bell tower-looking
atop the Bell Tower

The Baptistry has no line to speak of, nor does the Opera del Duomo Museum, which are both really a neat experiences. At the Museum you see up close many pieces that were made for and once a part of the Cathedral.

Other sites

We purchased tickets separately to see Michelangelo’s David in the Academia Gallery. We recommend spending a little extra and getting the time stamped version of these tickets. Also, if you buy tickets online make sure you get printed out versions from the little kiosk across the street from the entry. Ugh.

Getting here early probably helps, but our stamped time was for 545pm. We stood in line for about half hour and made it in almost exactly at our scheduled time.

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David’s ass.

Our favorite spot for gelato was “La Milkeria” with their homemade masterpieces, perfect on a hot day.

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the dome of The Baptistry

We didn’t have a favorite spot for wine or cappuccino; there were too many perfect places everywhere we looked.

Our favorite place to laptop and do a little work was The Cafeteria delle Oblate, near The Duomo. It’s not like any cafeteria you’ve ever been to – it’s an amazing multi-level open air space with great food, wine and other drinks and free wifi. It’s frequented by students and tech workers, and really is a pretty sweet spot, with a view of the Duomo.

We took a day tour to Pisa to see the leaning tower and the local cathedral. The same tour brought us to the amazing Tuscana World Heritage site of San Gimignano, and the city of Siena. If we had to do it all over again, for the timing of this tour… It would have been perfect to spend a few hours in Pisa and a few hours in Siena, and another tour to spend all day at San Gimignano. But we got amazing pictures.

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Pisa.

For our place – we stayed at an AirBnB right near the Talenti tram stop, about a 40 minute walk from the Florence city center and it seemed like a perfectly fine option. neighborhood markets and lovely people, as we’ve detailed elsewhere. This put us close to the amazing park just north of the Arno river and west of downtown Florence.

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A great park along the Arno River

We rented bikes at the SMN train station ( the main one in Florence city center ) for a day for 10 Euros apiece. The bikes were nothing special, but we had an amazing day going through this park in the morning and through Florence itself later on. There is also a bike route that circumscribes old Florence, but there’s really very little to see along this route. We recommend taking your bike into Old Florence despite the crowds, and possibly across the river at Ponte Vecchio.

Those are the highlights that we haven’t discussed elsewhere on the blog. We have a week left and we will try and see a jousting, a concerto, and a few other things before we wrap our stay up. If you have any must-sees, let us know.

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Inside the cathedral in Florence

standing in line – a nerd’s analysis and international relations

 

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Paris, not The Happiest Place on Earth

 

A buddy of mine is visiting the Happiest Place on Earth at the moment. On FB, he mentioned that there at Disneyworld there were some parents pushing their way forward in line, and how it was mostly people from other countries. 

I don’t know about you, but I see this, and it makes me crazy.

Maybe it’s me getting older, but it feels like I am more aware of these little rules all around us that just make things “go better.” Minute assumptions or agreements we all kind of make so society doesn’t run off the rails.

Using turn signals, letting people off the elevator before you try to get on, and standing in an organized line. Putting your luggage inn the overhead so that others can fit theirs, too. Eating your meal and then leaving the restaurant, so they can fill the table after you. 

You know, “normal.” When we don’t just do these simple things, chaos ensues, and it bothers me at a level so deep it’s embarrassing, sometimes. 


But here’s the thing

These assumptions of normal are different all over the world. Of course I know this in an academic way, from my schooling. I know this in a rational way, like any educated person does – disparate cultures are different, and have “different ways.” All of this knowledge goes out the window, or really never entered my mind, when I see someone jumping line. 

What? 

Fuuuuuuuuuuckyyyouuuuuuuuuuuu, buddy. I don’t care where you grew up. Get back to the end of the line and wait your goddamn turn to buy the new Harry Potter and the Chamber of Gandalf book, before I make a Gladiator-level spectacle here. Or have an aneurysm while I quietly fume.  

It happens when I’m traveling, too. Where the hell is my waiter? All these people drive like madmen! Why can’t we even all just stand in a simple line?

This is of course, ridiculous of me. Let’s talk about standing in line, in America.


In America…

If you grew up there when I did, when you were in Kindergarten or 1st grade some teacher yelled at you or whooped your ass until you learned to stand in a straight line.

Standing in line was never fun; you had to keep quiet, not be disruptive or poke people. you were to not make fart noises, and just be patient until you got to the head of the line. Where you quietly did your business then GTFO thank you, so the next kid could pay for their Salisbury steak. Or check out their copy of Green Eggs and Ham. Or whatever. 

So – no fun, keep quiet, no pushing, be patient, it’ll be over sooner if we all just cooperate, don’t be an asshole; it’s more efficient this way. And again: no fun.

That sums up how we feel about lines in American, drummed into us from childhood. A few things we can extract from this: long lines immediately cause stress, even if there’s no other “bad” stimulus laying about. Also, standing in line is kind of a chore; you put in your time, you get your reward. No one would ever choose to stand in line or look forward to it, it’s kind of a necessary evil that will be over soon if we all just settle down. It’s an equalizer – we all stand in line. Mostly. If someone goes to the head of the line, there better be a -serious- fucking reason. Like, they happen to be Ryan Reynolds. Or they spent, like, 10x more on their ticket. 

In the US, this is pretty deeply driven into us. So much so that, at the airport, even if someone had a cowbell around their neck and a standard bearer next to them with a big flag that signified they paid more than 10x what I may have for my ticket, I’d still be pissed if they moved to the front of my line.

So the airport people just make special lines, to avoid this social angst. This goes down much easier, to an American. I may resent the guy in that line for a moment, as I look at my cattle-herd of a line with forlorn despair. But that’s momentary. And maybe this is also American, but a few seconds later I think about how to work the system. “How do I get into that line?” And I start scheming. Live a better life? See up my pennies? Beat up Ryan Reynolds and take his ticket?

All viable options. But that idea of social mobility ( through smarts, money, or violence. #whatever ) is there – a very American thing. 


Lines in other parts of the world – a quick survey

Russia – standing in line is an art form, honed by great experience. The Russians have forgotten more about line-standing than the americans will ever know. They also make serious use of the Different Lines for Different people idea.

Great Britain – same as the US, except maybe a little more accepting of the social strata. “Ho hum, this is my lot in life. I’ll piss down my leg and smile, rather than complain about this line and how I need to use the loo.”

US Hawaiian islands – the “Quantum Line,” where there is a cloud of potential, people in quantum super-position around the area of the register. When you observe the line by asking “who’s in line?” All the people collapse into a recognizable line. If only for a moment. 

Italy – no recognizable queuing up, but maybe there’s one of those little number thingys. But the use of space is a free for all. Nudging up to the front or glass is perfectly fine, because they like to rub bodies here. Buonasera!

India – there are male lines and female lines. This is important because you slink up and spoon the guy immediately ahead of you, and the guy behind you does the same thing to you from behind. There is apparently a perfectly sane reason for this intimacy – to deter line-cutters, who have a refined art to edging in near the front of a line, and pretending they never saw the line to begin with, shocked they’re being called out on it. Hmmmm.

Kenya – a no-line free-for-all, from an American point of view. Let’s talk about this, as a counter to American Line Philosophy. 


Meanwhile, in Kenya

In Kenya, standing in line is at least as much about chatting with your neighbor as it is about getting a particular thing done. No one sweats waiting, because it’s like social time. And at the end there’s this bonus, and you get to order poultry. Or a train ticket, or whatever. If someone is in a hurry, they just move up to the front. This may involve body contact, but eh. We’re all friends here, right? If someone needs to go ahead, they need to go ahead. No problem for me. Why are they so busy? It must suck to be them. 


So what does it all mean?

How we feel about standing in lines is a great insight into our own culture, but also the idea of what you think is normal and rude might be different in other places. 

Do you think they have it “wrong?” That your culture is “right?” I’ll tell you this – regardless of how you feel about wrong and right, you can save yourself a ton of stress if you read up about a culture before you visit a place. “place cultural norms” and “place driving norms” and “place social norms” and “place gestures” are all great google searches. Be prepared for what everyone around you feels is right and wrong, regardless of what you might think. In your back yard, do things your way. In someone else’s garden… when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Beyond lines or traffic or hand gestures… what else is culturally relative? Guns? Social mobility? Freedom of the press? Organized crime?


Big questions to ponder, while standing in line.