by Annette Hinkle
It’s true that students can learn about other cultures by studying the history and art of faraway places in the classroom — but Pierson art teacher Peter Solow will tell you that nothing brings it all together like taking a trip to where it all happened.
On February 10, Solow and a group of high school students and their chaperones will head across the Atlantic on the annual school trip to Italy. Solow has led a number of Pierson trips there in the past and, over the years, has tailored the itinerary so that it offers students a range of experiences.
Naturally, there are visits to famous sites like the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Trevi Fountain in Rome and the ruins of Pompeii, but Solow notes there are also stops at hidden places that can only be found far off the tourist circuit.
“We’ll have a new guide who I met a year ago,” says Solow. “He’s very knowledgeable. What we don’t do are these boilerplate tours. Our tour director and I think of all these things for the kids to do. We take them to see things that mean something to us.”
“We go on these expeditions to try and find things that are unique and really off the beaten path,” he says.
On a previous trip, students visited the studio of one of the last gondola makers in Venice where Solow procured a forcula — the part of the gondola that holds the paddle — which he brought back home with him.
This will be senior Peter Landi’s second school trip to Italy and he’s excited to revisit some of the sites that impressed him when he first saw them as a sophomore.
“When we went to the Vatican and saw the mosaics, they looked like paintings,” says Landi. “I think of all the cities, Venice is my favorite — it’s a different kind of place. Going to the Vatican was so interesting, too, learning the facts about it.”
Though February’s trip will be sophomore Bo Dermont’s first to Europe, he has done his homework and already has an idea of what he wants to see in Italy.
“One place we’re going is the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua,” explains Dermont. “I watched a couple videos on Giotto, the first modern painter. I thought it would be really interesting to see one of the first people to use perspective.”
“What’s interesting about Bo is clearly he’s done some research,” says Solow. “I think there’s a cross section of kids that go on these trips — some are knowledgeable and some are not really up on it.”
But that’s okay. Often, the ability to put history into perspective is a matter of finding evidence of it through first hand experience. For example, on his last visit, Landi recalls being impressed by the remnants of Pompeii, the ancient civilization frozen in time in the wake of the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
“Walking around you still saw the grooves in the sidewalk of the carts that horses pulled behind them. There were also two holes carved out of a cement walk — it’s like in modern day where they would have gotten their fast food,” says Landi. “I don’t think everyone thought of that.”
“They’re seeing things in situ,” notes Solow. “That’s really impressive when you go into a place and are seeing things where they were meant to be seen without being moved and put in a museum.”
Solow notes the trips are geared for students with all sorts of interests and abilities — not just art students. Of course many students will travel with sketchbook in hand as they draw the architecture, art and scenery that inspires them. But others may prefer to record their experiences through writing, photography or on videotape. And beyond the planned itinerary, Solow notes there is always an impromptu moment that can turn into a treasured memory.
“The last time we were in Venice, it was during Carnivale. We found this campo, a piazza, where we ran into this funky cool band that was playing music,” recalls Solow. “Our kids, it was a big group of 40, started dancing. Then six penguins — well, people in penguin outfits six feet tall — came dancing into the crowd.”
“We were there for three hours,” he adds. “The Italian people were all standing on the sidelines until our kids started dancing.”
Beyond the vibrant activities of the cities, the students will also have an opportunity to experience Italian rural life at an “Agriturismo” farm near San Gimigano in Tuscany.
“We’ll have lunch there and tour the place,” says Solow. “The Slow Food movement is very important to understanding the culture and the cultural differences. The guy who owns the farm is a 90-year-old who toasts bread in his fireplace for us. His daughter does a wine lecture and the experience is brilliant.”
The students will also take part in a cooking class in Florence where Solow explains they are required to do all the cooking themselves.
“I’m not a big cook,” admits Dermont. “But I like eating.”
“The activities like the cooking class and mask making are important and enriching,” says Solow. “But I think Peter would agree, it’s the unexpected things that hit you.”
“I like seeing how other people live there, or going in shops and getting gelato,” responds Landi. “Seeing churches and stuff is cool, but I like walking around and pretending I live there.”
“For many of the students, the experience isn’t consummated until after they come back here and they have an opportunity to reflect on it and absorb it,” notes Solow. “It’s not what happens while you’re there, what’s really important is what it does to transform you — that’s something you grow into.”
This Sunday, January 31 from 5 to 7 p.m., “A Taste of Italy” dinner will be held in the Pierson High School cafeteria to raise funds for the trip. Several local restaurants, food purveyors and caterers have donated food for the cause and Pierson students Elizabeth Oldak and Luis J. Murillo will sing selections by Mozart, Traviata and Donizetti. Tickets are $25 ($12 for children) and may be purchased at the Pierson High School front desk. For more information, call Peter Solow at 725-5772.