An American In Italy

A semester spent in Europe... Rome, specifically.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

I Remember Rome ...

I was dumb and silent, I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse,
my heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:
"Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is!
Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight. Surely every man stands as a mere breath!

~Psalm 39:2-5

Concentrate, Lauren, concentraaaaate ....

I didn’t realize how quickly spring break is coming up – just at the beginning of March, nearish to two weeks away! Holy cow, and just last night I had a very vivid dream about Rome, involving a rare peaceful moment just outside the city. It may have had something to do with the fact that I watched Roman Holiday the other night, and that I’m convinced I’m Audrey Hepburn. But how fun!! Running around Rome on a moterino with Gregory Peck sitting behind you – who could ask for more? Well, aside from jumping into the Tiber .... that was gross. If you’ve seen the Tiber, that’s a “bleeeeeegh!” scene.

Where does the time go?

Dude, I don’t know.

I didn’t think I’d be getting nostalgic until much later. Of course, I also didn’t think I’d be antsy for spring break, yet I, fully intending to do my next week’s worth of homework tonight (as I’m going away for the weekend next weekend) in addition to translating some more Aquinas (dream on, Lauren), have done next to nothing today. I’ve got four lines of translation on the Synod of Constantinople, and I’ve kind of thought about reading Bernard of Clairvaux. I looked at my Medieval Europe syllabus to realize that I’m actually a week behind instead of actually on schedule. And didn’t Dr. S say something about midterms coming up?

Doing school in Rome was fun, because I actually didn’t do much of anything. ;D I was fortunate in having already read all or most of the stuff we were assigned to read. If I read it, fine; if I didn’t, I could make-do (except when I got deathly ill around the time we were studying Aquinas on pre-ordination, and though I’ve read it a million times, I got a terrible grade on that quiz, having missed the finer points of it). Who wanted to do school anyway when one had Rome at one’s feet? Well.... I did, for the first half of it. :P I was a positive recluse. I have no idea what was wrong with me. Well, wait, yes I do – with a few exceptions, I really didn’t connect very well with my peers, as most of the like-minded majors (classics, English, philosophy, theology, etc) go to Rome in the spring shift. I considered it a good weekend if I woke up early, cleaned the room, and curled up on the windowsill exactly like I wasn’t supposed to to read homework for the upcoming week (we had a beautiful view out our window, as partially seen in
this picture
.... lovely view of a vineyard out the window).

“Rome?” thought I at the outset. “Too many nasty Italian men.”

In fact, digging through my old journal entries, I just found a particularly virulent rant against the same ....

If I hear “bella, bella, bellina” ONE more time, I am going to SCREAM.

Ugh! These Italian men! I can’t stand them! .... Do Italian women just take it [their grossness]? One doesn’t want to cause a scene....

Not only are the men insufferable, but the sheer lackadaisicalness of this country. Bus and train times seem to be merely suggestions of when the driver might feel like moseying on over to the stop.

Also, the strange social customs – drinking from a bottle is apparently taboo. This makes little sense to the efficient American mind, but being in a country that considers this The Most Disgusting Thing, one must comply, lest we be like the annoying house-guest who comes into one’s nice, clean house only to put their muddy feet all over the furniture.
Che schifo!

Italians, Italians, Italians! When they speak, the shout; when they’re angry, they shout; when they’re happy, they shout; when they’re trying to be extra nice, they shout. Romans are also fairly brusque in their speech. Approached by a gypsy selling some utterly useless and over-priced dust-collector, I replied with a sharp “
no, grazie; vae via.” [“No, thank you.... go away!”] When he wouldn’t leave, I added “basta così!” Adopting the best Italian manner and accent I am capable of changes my speech pattern almost entirely. Usually fairly quiet and polite, one of my Australian friends with me seemed shocked at my address. “You come off as almost.... rude,” he said. “But, but....” I stammered, “the Italians do it!”

Do they? Are they just annoyed all the time?
Was I being rude?

I don’t know! Stupid country.

In hindsight, it’s funny. At the time, it’s not, really.

But that was the thing that kept me from going into Rome a lot until about halfway through the semester. I usually went by myself – everybody else had plans, and nobody liked to go church-hopping as much as I.

It wasn’t until I met a like-minded individual who not only knew all the good churches and strange relics the Eternal City had to offer that I was able to brave the metro system alone at rush hour.

And what fun .... I can see it all in my mind as clearly as if it were yesterday. The gurgling of Trevi fountain, along with the chatter of the tourists, the shouts of little kids, the calls of the gypsies selling really annoying stuff you don’t need.... if I close my eyes it’s there. Not to mention the fabulous gelato shop across the street and to the right some, and the antiques shop on the Via Umilita where I found a 16th century illustrated breviary for 600 Euro (I was sorely tempted).

And, my most secret of pleasures, the Angelicum. Across from the Trevi fountain, straight, to the left, cross the street and it’s just right there on the left. The trick is not getting run over by Italian drivers on the way. It’s the one thing I loved secretly and went back to when I was alone. There was not a whole lot to see there – and unfortunately the church was never open when I was around – but .... but .... it was the Angelicum! The Infidels just don’t understand. If the name “Thomas Aquinas” didn’t send a person into raptures, I didn't want to take them there. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva I would share, Santa Sabina I’d consider sharing, but people wouldn’t Understand the Angelicum. It’s a Deep Thing. It’s a Dominican Thing.

Thinking back on it, I don’t really know what other people went to go see when they went into Rome. I had a day at the Piazza Del Popolo going into nearly every church on the Via del Corso, and praying at the relic of the heart of St. Charles Borromeo in Ss. Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso. That was a busy evening, and though crowds and crowds of people pressed in around all sides, somehow they weren’t as threatening as they were at the beginning of the semester. I had learned something .... if only how to deal with crowds. Maybe I learned the secret to world peace.

Either way, I had just seen the heart of St. Charles Borromeo, and that was Cool.

At the time, I thought the baroque churches of Rome a bit over done. There was just way too much to absorb. Walking into church was a sensory-overload and, though I professed to dislike it for numerous years, I developed quite a liking to the gothic style. But every day when I sit inside the Eucharistic chapel here – a small box of a chapel with walls made of brick, an entirely unadorned Tabernacle cube and a Persian rug on the floor and little else to be told – I remember the graceful columns (like the daughters of Israel) and the billowing frescoes with their painted explosions of light and holiness, the elegance of the solid marble and the exuberant use of gold leafing. This was kingly stuff.

But it wasn’t just the art, it was the Vision, how everything meant something and it meant something profound. Angels supported altars and held monstrances, saints bowed in worship before tabernacles, Our Lady welcomed pilgrims with dirty feet and St. Lawrence ignores his searing martyrdom while the martyred St. Cecilia holds her fingers thus to signify three persons in one God.

I say this in present tense and without reference to the veil of paintings and statues through which we see and know the saints, and I say this for the reason that the saints are there, really there! One can go calling upon saints like old friends, face-to-face, even. In Cascia, I saw St. Rita face-to-face, and on a lucky day near S. Maria Sopra Mierva I literally walked into St. Catherine of Siena’s parlor (or, her bedroom). One could just .... sit down and have a cup of tea with them while chatting about Things.

And so one does – at the kneelers of their side chapels.

I’m sad that it took me half my semester to discover this. By the time I came back from Greece (where I really learned how to travel on my own), the semester was half-gone. By the time I came back from 10-day (at which point I was going into Rome only every other day), it was two and a half weeks from being over. Then my mother came. We had 10 more days – 10 days seems like such a long time when packing for it – and then they were gone in a moment. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the Irish college Monday morning with my mom and our luggage, saying goodbye to, aside from the saints, some of the dearest friends I’d met in my whole stay, whom I wouldn’t see for at least a year, if not more, if ever again.

When I returned home, it took me a long time to stop waking up in a panic trying to catch mass at St. John Lateran’s or Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (where, unfortunately, I never did make it to mass). In certain moments I’m back there again, but only in my mind’s eye. That remembrance always has a stab of the bittersweet in its remembrance, but at the same time it makes me grateful for having experienced it, and reminds me to appreciate the moment and to seize the day. Even though these grey, flat, freezing, rainy days seem miserable, annoying, and crammed with way too much Greek homework, they’ll never come again. One day I’ll look back on this era of my college life, like I look back on those warm, meditative spring days of high school home school where I could do my homework in the shade of our potted hibiscus with the sound of the fountain in the background. I’ll think of how great it was to be able to study what I like, and take out time for contemplation. And I’ll rebuke myself for being so foolish in my youth as not to appreciate it like I appreciate the memory of it now.

Had we but world enough, and time .... !

But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord!