Rome… in 2002 and 2016

I spent my four-day Easter weekend in Rome. This trip had special significance for me because Rome is the very first city that I visited outside the United States – and I hadn’t been back there since 2002.

I wish blogs had been a thing back then. It’s so strange now to think about how much things have evolved even within this millennium. The last time I was in Rome, none of my friends had cell phones; we took pictures on non-digital cameras with actual film inside and called home occasionally using a calling card at a pay phone. I scanned some of those photos but have long since discarded the original prints. However, I do still have the journal I kept during the trip.

I was last in Rome as part of a high school trip with about 30 other kids, including a fair number of my closest friends. My high school’s theme of government and international studies meant that we all studied multiple languages and that we had our choice of a few international trips to help us apply our studies. The Italy trip was the longest running and most popular of the trips, partially because, well, Italy, and partially because the three teachers who ran it couldn’t have been more qualified to do so. We had with us a Latin teacher who knows everything there is to know about the Roman empire, an Italian teacher (who also happened to be my French teacher), and an art history teacher – all of whom, in addition to being exceptionally knowledgeable about their respective areas of expertise, are amazing people who treated us with a degree of trust and equanimity not often bestowed on high school students.

That trip was a major turning point in my life. We can all identify experiences that changed us and set us on different paths, and in some ways the Italy trip is the most formative experience I’ve had in my nearly 31 years of life. It’s easy to see why. I had my first (limited) exposure to foreign languages in elementary school, when my principal used to give us a few Spanish lessons on random afternoons. I loved the idea of learning how to say things in a different language, so when I had the good fortune to go to a middle school with a French teacher renowned throughout the city, I dug a deeper foundation for a love of foreign languages. During that time one of my friends pointed out to me that I should be a lawyer because I always win my arguments, and when I related that to my mother, she said “you should be an international lawyer!” And then what did I do? I went to my internationally-focused high school, where I studied French, Spanish, and Italian, and then went to college, where I majored in International Relations and Hispanic Studies and spent most of my free time doing Model UN and planning my future career as a lawyer working abroad. What am I doing now? Working as a lawyer in London (and getting to use Spanish and French upon occasion at work). Pretty cool.

But I probably wouldn’t have had nearly the same drive to pursue a career abroad were it not for that trip to Italy when I was 17. It’s hard now to know to what extent I was really conscious of this during and immediately after the trip, but certainly when I think back now I think of that trip as the origin of my desire to live outside the United States. Speaking another language was just as enjoyable in real life as it had been in the classroom. I marveled at how delicious the food was, how much older everything was and looked, the history that oozed out of every stone, the fashionable dress of the Italians, the completely different approach to city planning, and the innumerable other differences, large and small, between the United States and everywhere we went in Italy.

Because we received academic credit for the trip (and it really did involve quite a lot of formal learning; we had to give presentations), we had to keep journals, for which we were also graded. When I read mine now, I have to laugh. It sounds exactly like the journal of a 17-year-old American who is abroad for the first time. My next major experience in Europe was when I spent the summer studying in Spain in 2005, and at that time I had very firm opinions about the right and wrong attitudes to have when being abroad, first and foremost appreciating the distinction between “different” and “weird”. I have always assumed that I had that attitude in 2002 as well, but judging solely by my journal, I’m not sure I did. I loved many things that were different about Italy, but I was more likely to note the things that were different in a not-so-good way, with or without a judgmental tone. Like my decision to live abroad, I think my “how to be a good traveler” inclinations can be attributed to the Italy trip, but they perhaps took root just afterward rather than in the midst of the experience.

At any rate, I have no idea why it took me so long to get back to Rome; it was my favorite place that we visited on that trip and remained at the top of my list of favorite cities for quite a long time, perhaps until I went to Rio. I’d never had an experience of going back to a place I had been once before after such a long lapse of time, and I was curious to see what I would remember.

Two things about Rome stand out very clearly in my mind from my 2002 trip: it gets blazingly hot in the summer, and the fact that we walked everywhere only made the memory of the heat more pronounced. Rome was our first (and last) stop on the three-week trip, so naturally it was there that my specially bought walking sandals gave me horrible blisters that made the walking – for which we, as Americans, were not naturally prepared – all the more unpleasantly memorable. There’s a point in my journal where I complain (or brag?) “Mr. Ross walked us across half of Rome today!”

I don’t doubt the veracity of that statement, but it’s funny how perspectives change. Of course my 17-year-old self was astonished by the idea of walking across half of a city; we drive everywhere in the US, and the bulk of my physical activity came from swim practice. Walking to a place that was a five-minute drive away had never occurred to me; why would you walk instead of drive, even such a short distance? So you can imagine how mind-blowing it was that we were walking distances that would have taken as much as 20 minutes to drive.

It took me about 10 minutes of being in Rome this time around to realize how skewed my perception had been. Now that I’ve been living in Europe for nearly three years, I’ve grown quite accustomed to walking and indeed embrace the opportunity. In Paris I often spent 70-90 minutes a day walking to and from school, and now I have a 20-minute walk between my house and my office (and I live where I do precisely because I want to be able to walk). Once I had dropped my suitcase at my hotel on the northeastern edge of the city center (near the Termini train station), I needed to get over to the Vatican for a 1:30 entrance time to the Musei Vaticani. If you look at a map, it’s not a short distance, and I was a little concerned about time, but I went for it anyway, and pretty soon I realized a few things.

First, Rome (or at least the center) is not nearly as large as I thought. The journey from my hotel to the Vatican only took me about 45 minutes, and I was essentially walking from one edge of the center to the other. Second, I hadn’t learned much about the geography of the city last time because our teachers led us everywhere. We got to go off for lunches on our own, but we never ventured beyond the confines of the neighborhood in which we were, so I never had the opportunity to independently connect the dots between, say, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. (Our teachers also often didn’t tell us where we were going while we were on the move, so we weren’t usually in a position to make those connections. I distinctly remember that on our first morning in Rome we set off from Termini without any idea of where we were going and that after walking through a bunch of smaller streets we turned a corner and suddenly the Colosseum was in front of us. I’ve sometimes wondered if Mr. Ross did that on purpose for dramatic effect.) Third and finally, Rome’s not as confusing to navigate as I thought. I remembered a tangled web of narrow streets without much visibility about where things led, but I found it remarkably easy this time around to rely on my sense of direction in order to get from one point to another.

Aside from the big realization about the size and navigability of the city, my other big take-away from the 2016 trip was that I remembered almost nothing of what I’d seen in 2002. Yes, I vaguely remembered being inside the Colosseum (enough to know that it was different this time) and Saint Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel and the Forum… but in terms of small details within museums and churches (or churches generally), I might as well have never been there before. My first day (Friday) was my “take a trip down memory lane” day, so I went to the Musei Vaticani and the Musei Capitolini – the two museums that stick out in my mind as being the most significant on our 2002 trip.  I tell you, a grand total of two things were familiar to me about the Musei Vaticani: the Sistine Chapel (specifically, that everyone takes pictures despite the staff interspersed throughout the crowd) and the spiral staircase at the exit. That is literally it. The room with Raphael’s “School of Athens” was such an unfamiliar space to me that I actually passed through without realizing it was there (which is really sad because that painting was something I had really wanted to see again, and once you go through it’s hard to turn around).

The Capitoline Museums were slightly more familiar to me, but only from the outside. I remembered that they overlooked the Forum, that there was an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the courtyard, that a grand staircase led down to the street, and that we often used to reassemble after lunch in the shade of the portico on one side of the courtyard. I definitely had a moment of looking at that spot in the shade and remembering us drinking our water in a futile attempt to beat the heat. Inside the museum, however, I was just as clueless as I’d been at the Vatican. I feel like we spent a LOT of time in that museum and that it contained a LOT of stuff that was really important, but nothing looked familiar to me… and without Mr. Ross to explain everything in detail, it was a pretty empty experience, except for the following.

It had become tradition for each Italy trip to take THE group photo of the trip with Constantine’s head at the Capitoline Museum. Finally seeing that head was an exciting moment for me in 2002; I’d seen it in pictures from trips past and couldn’t wait for us to have our own shot with it. I still have the (scanned!) picture from 2002:

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The GSGIS 2002 Italy Trip 

(I’m the third from the left in the back row.) Obviously, one of my first thoughts in approaching this return trip was “I have to take a new picture with Constantine.” So here we are, me with Constantine in 2016:

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I feel lonely in this picture!

To close out the nostalgia, I’ll just note that I didn’t feel particularly sad to find that so much had become unfamiliar to me. It actually almost seems appropriate. As much as the 2002 Italy trip was a bridge into the future that has become my present, it was also the end of another era of my life. I’m glad that forgetting so much allowed me to have an almost entirely new experience this time.

(One final thing for the record. Many people, in discussing how my trip to Rome in 2016 would be different from the one in 2002, commented about how I’d probably drink the same amount of alcohol. I just want to note that although wine was sometimes inevitably served at our dinners – our teachers often knew the proprietors of the restaurants where we’d go as a large group, and Italians are obviously completely used to teenagers drinking wine at meals – I was essentially a goody-two-shoes back then and also had no appreciation for wine, so my consumption was very minimal.)

Which is why it’s appropriate that my first evening in Rome began at a wine bar. I met up with an Australian friend of mine from London (we became friends thanks to a book event about Paris, which just goes to show that the magic of Paris extends beyond the French border) and her boyfriend, and we accomplished the truly remarkable feat of finding a place that seemed to be crowded with Italians rather than tourists. We got there just as it opened at 6:30, which was lucky because by the time we left the place was completely full. Isn’t this exactly how a wine bar should look?

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We had a lovely bottle of Italian red and, of course, some bruschetta and anchovies. (It was Good Friday, so we were trying to be good and avoid meat – which was surprisingly difficult to do in the city that has been home to the Catholic church all these years.) After the wine bar we moved on in search of a restaurant just north of the Piazza Navona that had been recommended to them, and although we didn’t find it, we ended up in a place that suited us just as well. We got what was marketed to us as ONE appetizer, a collection of Roman antipasti. Look at what that one appetizer included:

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artichokes, green beans, mushrooms, zucchini, cauliflower, buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto (whoops), and of course bread

Next we enjoyed what was essentially a flight of pastas. We ended up with only two, which I think is only because we communicated that we really couldn’t have possibly each had a third plate of pasta. Both were delicious; the second boasted a sauce made entirely of a reduction of two types of cheese. YES PLEASE. And, obviously, they gave us some limoncello “on the house” at the end of the meal to aid our digestion of their food as well as the gelatto that we felt was our cultural imperative to have as dessert.

Not that I would have felt guilty about all of this food in the first place (that’s just a losing battle if you’re in Italy and completely misses the point of being there), but I walked about 30,000 steps – almost four trips across the center of the city – that day, so I totally earned it.

My last stop of the day was at the Trevi Fountain. This picture (for whatever reason) now holds the record of the most likes I’ve received for any picture I’ve posted on Instagram:

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My Croatian friend Iva joined me on Saturday; it was her first time in Rome, and by then I’d familiarized myself enough that I could lead us around pretty easily. The weather was gorgeous – completely clear blue sky and warm enough in the sun that I took off my jacket (for the first time in months). We spent the afternoon at the Colosseum (including a rather long wait in a confusing line, but whatever) and the Forum. I once again missed having Mr. Ross as my tour guide; I remember him having so much to say while we were in the Forum.

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me and Iva inside the Colosseum

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the still awe-inspiring Roman Forum

Easter Sunday was just as lovely in terms of weather. Now, I should note that I hadn’t chosen to come to Rome that weekend because it was Easter specifically; I came because I had a four-day weekend, and I felt that I needed four days in order to do Rome properly (which was true). The fact that I am a Catholic [who doesn’t go to mass] was just icing on the cake. Iva is more of a practicing Catholic than I am, but I think we were ultimately equally excited about the prospect of being in Saint Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday.

We decided to approach things casually. Because the Brussels terrorist attacks had taken place earlier that week, we weren’t sure how many people would actually turn up in the square (we’d heard that a lot of pilgrims had cancelled their trips). Iva is from a major city in Croatia, but any city in Croatia is small compared to other major European capitals, so she was feeling nervous about being in a place that was naturally more of a target. We figured as long as we could see the Pope’s balcony and hear the noon blessing, we’d be happy.

We started the day nearby at the Castel Sant’Angelo. I actually didn’t go here in 2002, so it was cool to do something entirely new! It’s well worth a visit; the views of the Vatican are great, and the views of the rest of the city are arguably better than those from the dome of Saint Peter’s (not to mention exponentially easier to achieve).

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We had a pretty clear vantage point of the way leading into Saint Peter’s Square and didn’t feel particularly pressed to get over there – from what we could tell, people hadn’t extended much beyond the square itself. We arrived at the security checkpoint on that street (about four blocks back from the square) around 11:30. There were barricades to control the flow of people, and policemen were checking bags, but otherwise it wasn’t a particularly complicated procedure.

We had made it to what seemed like a final barricade in the middle of the street and were prepared to stand there the rest of the time when suddenly I looked a little further ahead and realized that the Pope was in the Popemobile and driving straight at us! Neither of us had any idea that this would happen, and it was pure good luck that we happened to be in the right place at the right time. We were in the front of the barricade and ultimately weren’t more than five meters away from him!

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Pope Francis!

We spent the rest of the day (and the rest of the trip) periodically commenting to each other, “we saw the Pope!” It was such a cool surprise, especially given that as it turns out you can barely see him when he’s on the balcony. We had a clear vantage point (from just outside the square) by the time he came out at noon to give the blessing, and although we could distinguish individual people, that was the greatest detail we could see. I’m so glad that I got the chance to see someone whom I admire so much and who is doing so much to lead the Church towards a more liberal approach to the modern world. And it was great to be part of that crowd of the faithful on Easter Sunday.

After the blessing, we joined the throng filing out of Vatican City and walked for a while along the south side of the Tiber until we got to Trastavere. We ate some pizza on the steps of a fountain (mine had truffles on it; amazing) and then got gelatto to celebrate Iva’s post-Lent ability to eat sweets.

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Tiramisu and dulce de leche. Sinfully delicious.

After walking quite a bit further through the south side, we crossed back over to the north side and into an area of the city that I vaguely remembered as being a little seedier. (I note in my journal that while walking to see a church we passed a man who was wanking off on the side of the street, which needless to say was somewhat traumatizing for me.) We walked to see Rome’s random Egyptian pyramid and then backtracked a bit to rest in a rather dirty park where some Italians were lying in the grass or having Easter picnics. Finally we had a nice little uphill hike to see something else I hadn’t seen before, the famous keyhole of the Knights of Malta. Until we reached the square with the keyhole, I think we had spent nearly an hour without seeing any tourists.

The keyhole was underwhelming, and I do not recommend seeking it out. It’s cool in that yes, you look through a keyhole in a large door and see Saint Peter’s with trees on either side, but you can’t take a picture of that image, and you have to wait in line for about 15 minutes for that five-second experience. Not worth it! However, the immediate area is lovely. We continued down the road and looked inside two very old churches, then we sat in the lovely orange and rose garden with a great view:

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That’s Saint Peter’s beyond the trees.

We decided to find the Spanish Steps before calling it quits for the day, so we walked about 30 minutes north from there. Part of the steps are covered with scaffolding now, so I didn’t take a picture, but we had a good time seeing where all of the good shopping in Rome is. (Gucci, Prada, etc. are all around there.)

On Sunday night we managed to score seats in the famous Pizzeria da Baffetto just down the street from our apartment. The previous night there had been a continuous and very long line to get in, so we hadn’t been optimistic, but on Easter it went from being completely closed (no one inside) at 6 p.m. to being open at 6:30, and we got there around 6:45. Neither of us thought it was the best pizza we’d had; mine looked great, but I couldn’t really taste any of the tomato, and that’s a pretty important part! I did, however, spark the interest of our waiter, who whispered to me on our way out, “I love you!”

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Iva had her heart set on getting some chocolate cake to make up for the sweets she hadn’t eaten during Lent, so we ended up at a cute restaurant a little further away with a very effective guy in the role of front of the house – he saw us pass on the street, told us to come back in two minutes, and had us seated three minutes later. This place was just off the southern end of the Piazza Navona, so there was great people watching, and that guy and one of his waiter colleagues proved very entertaining as well. The waiter took a fancy to Iva, while the other guy seemed most interested in me. At the end of the night, Iva received a handwritten note from the waiter with his name, phone number, and “see you later! kiss!” on it. We were chuckling over that when the other guy came over and commented “I’m more efficient”, proceeding to hand me a small piece of paper on which was typed his name, his number, and the tagline “Love in Rome.” I’m 100% serious, and if I were skilled enough with photo editing to blur out his name and phone number, I’d put a picture of the note here. They weren’t keen to let us leave and tried very hard to extract from us a promise that we’d come back in 45 minutes when they’d be off work and ready to share a glass of wine with us. We weren’t interested in doing anything physical with them, and we couldn’t think of anything we’d have to talk about, so we didn’t take them up on the offer… but it was flattering and amusing nonetheless!

On Monday we got up earlier and spent my last few hours in Rome at Saint Peter’s. The interior was moderately familiar to me; I was glad to re-touch Saint Peter’s foot. The outdoor display from the day before was also lovely:

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one of several large floral displays on the steps of St. Peter’s, just under the crucifix

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We climbed to the top of the dome (which was actually a bit more arduous than I remembered) and, perhaps because it was cloudy and perhaps because it was just extremely crowded, we weren’t at all sure it was worth the energy or the time. I saw a teenage Italian girl blatantly add her name to the graffiti on the wall and wanted to smack both her and her mother, who handed her the pencil. The nerve! I also saw that a student from Boston College had inscribed her full name along with her school affiliation and was seized by indignation and the desire to contact the [Catholic] school and tell them that their students clearly don’t think much of the Church if they’re willing to deface Saint Peter’s. It’s one thing to write your name in a random bathroom stall, but I found it utterly appalling how many people had written something (or stuck their gum!) on the walls on the top of the dome. I’m sorry to end it on that angry note, but that was the last thing we did before I had to go to the airport!

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In sum, it was wonderful to go back to Rome – to see things that were familiar yet new, and in the comfort of 65-degree rather than 95-degree weather. Now is the perfect time of year to see the city, and despite it being Easter weekend, I actually thought there were fewer tourists than I’d been expecting. I definitely think I could live in Rome, and it’s now more firmly back towards the top of my list of favorite cities.

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