Friday, June 21, 2013

Honey for a Moon in Italy

   I recently posted photos from our wedding, so I thought I would supplement that with a some of my favorite pictures from our honeymoon.

    When we were considering honeymoon destinations before the wedding, we of course wanted somewhere that exuded romance. And, for us, there is no place that does that like Europe. In looking into Europe, Slovenia quickly became our #1 destination (and I’ll post it next), but since it neighbors Italy, I jumped at the chance to start from there. I loved the idea even more when I learned this interesting fact: the word "honeymoon" derives from the ancient Roman tradition of sweetening the couple's wine with honey for the first month (or moon cycle) of marriage. Honeyed-wine for a moon.

   And so we began our honeymoon in Italy. Tivoli, Italy to be precise. Just outside Rome, Tivoli was the playground of Rome's elites, and they built some incredible villas there. It was also the source of Rome's great aqueducts, so it is sprinkled with beautiful springs, fountains, and waterfalls.

    I’ve always been rather enamored with Europe. But, as much as it pains me to admit it, 12 years had passed since I was last there. So Italy didn’t have to work real hard to impress me. It can just sit there, with no glitz or glamor, simply enduring the test of time, reminding us of its longevity, and I am reverent. Yes, the Vatican and other such monumental works are astounding masterpieces, of course, but show me the simple pavement stones of the Roman forum, where the Caesars’ feet tread, and I’m euphoric. Nothing moves me more than connecting with history. And I’ve never found a place that does that better than Rome.

    In route from Rome to Tuscany lies Orvieto, a medieval hilltop town built on a huge outcrop of volcanic tufa. Its beautiful cathedral with gold mosaic that glitters in the sun is a primary reason for visiting, but the elevation of the town also affords a fantastic view of its surroundings.

    The rolling hillside of Tuscany is dotted with ancient stone architecture crowning the hilltops. These little sleepy towns are steeped in history and have changed little since they were constructed centuries ago.

   One of our major plans while in Tuscany was to revisit the town where I had lived during my college study abroad semester, Castiglion Fiorentino. It had been such a significant time in my life: the first place that really inspired my wanderlust. I learned so much there (about culture, history, and art), made such special friendships, and was filled with such an overwhelming appreciation for the world that it brought it tears to my eyes on an almost daily basis. My husband had been hearing about this place and time in my life for years, and I was thrilled to finally get to share it with him. I was nervous to go back though, afraid that if I found it much changed it would taint my memories. But thankfully the town remained basically the way I had left it. There were a few small differences, some new shops and such, but for the most part, it was the same. After all, the town is over a thousand years old, so I suppose progress ticks a little more slowly there.

    One thing had significantly changed though. Paolo, the beloved director of our study center, had recently passed of cancer. The Santa Chiara Study Center (so named because it is housed in the renovated 600-year-old monastery of the Poor Clare nuns) always had tranquil air about it, except of course during the lively communal dinner, but now it seemed even more hushed than usual, as if the students and if the whole world...was holding its breath, waiting for inspiration to return.

    My husband and I sat on a bench in the small space that separated the Santa Chiara monastery-turned-study center from the church next door. As the hour turned, the church bells rang - the same bells that had announced every hour that I had lived there. How many times had I heard them chime? How many centuries had they unfailingly marked time before I existed? Churches are ubiquitous in Italy, so it seems there are few places in the country where their bells cannot be heard. I was reminded of a story one of my Italian teachers, Marco, had told us. When he had studied in the States, someone had asked him what he missed most from home, and Marco had responded, "I miss my bells."

   As they clanged about then, in their special off-key clatter, my eyes welled with tears and that strange laugh-cry caught in my throat, because it seemed they called out to me: "You are home!"
Castiglion Fiorentino

    Our last stop in Italy was Venice. I had visited before, long ago while living in Italy, and had enjoyed it immensely, but I expected that this time it wouldn't make quite the impression it had the first. I was wrong. Despite years of travel and all the incredible and unimaginable places I have seen, there is still something magical and extraordinary about Venice. Yes, there are the inevitable tourist crowds, which can make it feel kitschy at times. But Venice is a labyrinth of little alleys and canals. Make a few aimless turns, and you will wander into a quiet stretch, sliced with a fetching waterway and framed with crumbling Gothic and Byzantine facades that whisper of centuries past. The architecture, the gondolas, the wine...they all worked their charm, and I fell happily under the Venetian spell again. Venice---a city so in love with the sea it locked itself in an eternal embrace. Who can walk amid their enduring union, tracing their intertwined limbs, and not get caught up in the romance?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Bodhi Leaf

   I thought I would share with you the story and significance of the bodhi leaf.  It is a common element in Thai spiritual artwork, and I’ve been rather drawn to its simple charm since I first encountered it.

     In Thai, it is called “bai bo” (bai = leaf; bo = the abbreviated word for bodhi).  The word “bodhi” is both a Sanskrit (Ancient Indian) and Pali (Ancient Thai) word that translates as “enlightenment” or “wisdom.”  Today, the tree’s scientific name is Ficus religiosa.  It is revered because it is said to be the type of tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the spiritual teacher and founder of Buddhism, was said to have been meditating when he attained enlightenment, after which he was called the “Buddha,” a Sanskrit word meaning “the awakened one.”  Thus, the tree became sacred to Buddhists, and its leaf a symbol of peace and happiness.

    The particular bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated grew at Bodh Gaya in northern India. Siddhartha Guatama lived some 500 years before Christ, so the original bodhi tree died long ago.  However, clippings of it were taken and planted throughout India and Sri Lanka.  The oldest living bodhi that was started as a sapling from the mother tree grows in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, now a sacred pilgrimage site. It was planted in 288 BC, making it the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date. 
Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    Many temples throughout the Buddhist world have bodhi trees accompanying them that are (or are thought to be) descended from the Anuradhapura one, and their worship is a common Buddhist practice.
head of Buddha statue cradled in tree at the ruins in Ayutthaya, Thailand

  The banyan tree, or Ficus bengalensis, is a cousin of the bodhi and is often revered as well.  Although their appearances are quite distinct and I’m not sure how confusion between the two occurs, I do understand the compulsion to honor the banyan.  With its dangling aerial roots and twisted expansive trunk, it exudes a sort of magical charm.  Thais often venerate it by adorning it with multi-colored ribbons and incense sticks.

    At the market where I shop for Buddha amulets, images of the Buddha meditating are ubiquitous, but ones in which he is sheltered by the leaves of the bodhi are rare, and finding them can take persistent digging.  Luckily, I’ve got doggedness in spades and succeeded in unearthing some I really love.  I recently featured these Buddha and bodhi leaf amulets in several new earthy green necklaces. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Alms Day

    Today is a holy day in the Buddhist world.  Vesakha Bucha, or Vesak Day, is the occasion when Buddhists commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama.  As a part of the holiday tradition, Thais participate in Maha Sangha Dana alms-giving to the monk community.  In Bangkok, this was a massive gathering of 10,000 monks as well as thousands of attendees who dressed in all white.  One of the main roads in town was blocked off for the event, and the gray concrete was blanketed in a sea of saffron robes.  The Dana commenced at dawn with a breakfast of rice followed by a Buddhist ceremony.  As the sunlight began to filter through the skyscrapers, deep chants resonated through the oddly quiet streets.  The Dana ceremony concluded with the monks filing along in a procession like a gilded stream, flanked by attendees who paid their respects and offered alms of food to sustain the monks through the coming monsoon season.

attendees in white
alms bowl
procession with alms bowls
novice monks


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Wedding for Wanderers

   My husband and I recently celebrated our first anniversary, which inspired me to look back through our trove of wedding photos. They are just too pretty to file away and forget. This got me thinking that maybe I should include them in a blog...for the romantics out there.

   Dane and I are both wanderers who got lucky and found the person with whom we want to explore the world. We both studied anthropology, share a passion for culture and history, and have spent more of the last decade living outside the United States than in it. When we got engaged we knew that, since our lives are different than most, our wedding should be too. It was important to us to stay true to ourselves and not get caught up in other people’s expectations. We live very frugal lives and often “rough it” in order to stretch our travel dollar, and the idea of dumping a bunch of money into the inflated wedding industry went against our every fiber. We knew if we were going to have a wedding, we would have to make it a very hands-on and self-expressive journey. Luckily, we both come from very D.I.Y. families. We are originally Texans after all, so working with our hands and getting down and dirty is basically bred into us. Also, as an Etsian, I knew I had the Etsy community as a boundless resource as well.

    In addition to keeping costs low, our main priority was that our wedding embody our love of travel and history. We currently live in Thailand, and at first we planned to have the wedding here amid archaeological ruins, but when we considered the expense it would cost our families and the fact that we’d be the contact points for all the logistics involved in their trip, we decided to avoid that potential stress pit and bring the ceremony home to them. But we figured there was no reason we couldn’t have some wedding photography taken in Asia first. We scoped out some of our favorite backdrops and then hired a local photographer to accompany us there for a whirlwind day of surreal wedding photography.

   On another occasion, Dane and I traveled to Cambodia to our favorite archaeological site, Angkor, with my dress stuffed in a backpack. I changed into it onsite and Dane, a skillful photographer himself, took the coolest bridal pictures an archaeologist gal could ever imagine. I know it broke with tradition, but the pictures mean even more to me knowing he is the one who captured them.

    Then it was on to the real thing back home. We reserved a free chapel overlooking the Texas hill country. I flew home two months before the wedding so I could spend some time with my family and get all the details rolling. Nearly every element was collected from around the world, made by hand, or passed down through the ages.

   I made our invitations myself and printed them to look like vintage postcards.

   My dress, an amazing vintage find from an antiques store, only required minor alterations, and, to suit my old-fashioned taste, I added an extra layer of lace acquired from an Etsy fabrics recycler.
   Dane had his suit made by a tailor in Thailand following a vintage style, and he wore his grandfather’s pocket watch from his years working the railroad.
     I scoured estate sales for antique lace, teacups and lanterns. My mother sewed the tablecloths, my grandmother the seat cushions. I made lace-covered candleholders and wine glass charms from cameos I purchased from Etsy crafts suppliers.
    The night before the wedding, we had a girls' night-in, and my mother, sister, grandmother, mother-in-law and I made my bridal bouquet and all the flower arrangements. With several hands at work, each bouquet was unique, giving the arrangements a natural, straight-from-the-garden effect, especially when displayed in old tea cups and lace-covered mason jars.
   For the cake, food, photography and music, we hired burgeoning artists in order to keep costs down. Because of their novice status, all of these people offered their services at incredible discounts, while they gave tremendously more effort than most established professionals probably would have. As a new small business owner myself (of the Etsy shop LotusandLaceBoutique), I loved the idea of supporting other budding artists.

    It was extremely important to me and Dane that the ceremony be intimate. This was reinforced by the fact that the chapel was tiny and had very limited space, so we kept the guest list down to immediate family and only a few of our closest friends. For us, it was essential that the ceremony be representative of who we are, as individuals and as a partnership, and of the commitment we were making to each other. Dane is a writer, and I dabble a bit as well, so we decided to write the ceremony ourselves, and Dane’s brother officiated it. This made it all the more meaningful for us and for our guests. As the rain clouds momentarily parted and our loved ones gathered near, we shared the joy we had found in each other and exchanged our personal vows expressed from the heart. It was an emotion-filled, magical night.
my mother's bridal portrait

   After the wedding, we had a small, informal reception at the pavilion next to the chapel and then a larger bon voyage party the following weekend before we left for our honeymoon and return-trip to Thailand.
   Guests were served Thai tea and an array of ethnic dishes cooked by our skillful parents. We decorated the pavilion with curios brought back from our travels, such as Thai statues and Buddha amulets, and then sent them home with our guests as wedding favors.
   Instead of a having a guestbook, I printed out old maps in the form of postcards and scattered them around for guest to view, leave us messages, and then deposit in an old travel case.  
   For the bon voyage party, I made another set of wine glass charms from fabric buttons, each featuring a global location or iconic site, purchased from fellow Etsian and globe-trotter RetroNaNa.
   My favorite addition to the reception d├ęcor was a collection of antique, hand-written, French postcards, many of them documenting couples’ honeymoons, which I found through an Etsian in France, CartesPostales. I decorated the tables with these and then invited guests to select their favorites to take home.
   We finished the night lounging on floor cushions and passing around a Middle Eastern hookah, while reminiscing about old stories and planning for future adventures.

       And the blissful journey continues...


Wedding photography in Thailand:
Sweetheart Studio

Wedding photography at Angkor, Cambodia:
Dane Phillips

Wedding photography in Texas:
Claudia Alvarado

Wedding location in Texas:
Chapel Dulcinea

Catering and Set-up:
Amanda Teague

Musician (classical guitar):