Return from Sabbatical

By: Neil Mufson
Most of you know that I was away the last three weeks on a mini-sabbatical that the Board of Trustees granted me to mark my 25 years as Head of School. What you probably don't know is that I spent most of the time in Puglia, the relatively undiscovered, spectacularly beautiful "heel" of Italy. Nestled between the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, the area is characterized by the azure sea, gnarled olive groves outlined by antique, dust-colored stone walls, ancient fortified towns, and astounding architectural and artistic treasures, mostly centering on the life of the church. Picture the most extraordinary images you've seen of calm, clear, turquoise grottos adjacent to areas of aquamarine water crashing into naturally-carved cliffs, add picturesque towns that tower above the sea, and impossibly narrow, winding, fast moving roads, and you've pretty much captured how I’ll remember coastal Puglia, particularly the southeastern area known as Salento.

As we explored each spot, I was struck by contrasts I didn't expect. Restaurants that served carefully prepared "slow food" in somehow cozy, stone-arched ceilinged spaces with waiters using touchscreen devices to beam orders to the kitchen. Parking areas in archetypal, labyrinthine, stone and stucco towns that, undetected, captured license plates and the time as cars entered so that the fee could be calculated upon leaving. Isolated hill towns that had acres and acres of solar panels or wind farms in the nearby countryside. People using selfie sticks to get in the photo of the Easter week procession as elderly men in tuxedos carried a full scale, realistic replica of Christ in a glass casket. Drivers who are in such a rush that they pass you on impossibly curvy and narrow roads yet still participate in the culture-wide siesta that occurs from 1:00 - 4:00 every afternoon. The old and the new live side by side.

One of the gifts that comes from traveling to a different place, particularly if you don't speak the language, is the chance -- the necessity, even -- to see simple, everyday things anew and to have to stop and really think about what you're doing, where you are and where you're headed, and what you're trying to say. Around almost every bend I witnessed the results of people now, and through the ages, trying to make the very best and most beautiful use of the humble ingredients they had at hand -- stone, flour, pigments, the bounty of the sea and carefully nurtured fields.

On the morning we were to fly home, I received a call from school about a significant health issue one of our students was experiencing. It made me realize that, despite the fairly frenetic pace we were keeping to, I had had the chance to let go of the daily responsibility for everything at school for the first time in a very long time. Liberating and healthy, it also allowed me to experience things in a deeper way -- far different from my usual trips or vacations.

Coming to this realization, experiencing these juxtapositions, slowing down to see some things anew, and having the chance to meet some remarkably friendly, ingenious, and generous people were all true gifts. I'm grateful both that the Board provided the opportunity and that so many people "stepped up" in my absence so that the work of the school didn't miss a beat.

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